When the US Republican Party nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, it was inevitable that the 2016 election would intertwine brands and politics more closely than ever before.
For some key demographics throughout society, it has become increasingly important for consumers to identify not only with a brand’s products but also their politics.
Movements such as 2011’s Occupy Wall Street or the recent boycott of Carlton & United Brewery’s products in Australia demonstrate the potentially severe backlash awaiting firms perceived as unethical by this new generation of politically active consumers.
In light of this new pressure for brands to engage politically, let’s take a look at a couple of the unprecedented ways this election has impacted marketing.
The Trump organisation vs the fourth estate
Trump’s reputation as a businessman is at the heart of his bid for the White House, which made media analysis of his ventures and products an inevitable aspect of vetting his legitimacy as a candidate.
From Trump’s university to his vineyards, his vodka to his steaks, the media have focused significant attention on the quality of both his current and previous ventures. Projects which might have been relegated to history’s footnotes have instead been thrust into international spotlight, from traditional business sources as well as those that usually stick to politics.
Which isn’t to imply that Trump is merely a bystander to all this media misfortune. Multiple press conferences hosted by Trump have concluded with the prominent placement of his steaks and wine, and he frequently hosts press conferences from his hotels or golf clubs, explicitly talking them up in his speeches.
Trump’s personal fortune, largely attached to companies bearing his name, might be exposed to serious risk through a potential defeat on November 8th. Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban has publicly speculated that the election has turned Trump’s personal brand so “toxic” he’ll go bankrupt within seven years.
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Others have pointed out the apparent trade-offs of his nativist policies, which have found an audience among white men on the lower end of the economic spectrum and alienated the college educated, among others.
However, Trump’s brands are marketed as luxury and are generally patronised by affluent college graduates (the vast majority of his hotels, for example, don’t offer hotel rooms for less than $500AUD per night) – a worrying factor for the first major party candidate who promised to “turn a personal profit” off his presidential run.
In the last month alone, two prominent American confectionary brands have been pulled into the political conversation.
The first, Wrigley’s Skittles, were featured in a campaign advertisement tweeted out (the tweet was subsequently deleted) by Donald Trump Jr. The controversial tweet, image and the analogy itself went viral, spreading rapidly into the depths of the internet, newspapers and ultimately cable television news reports.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) September 19, 2016
Wrigley quickly issued a statement criticising the “inappropriate analogy” likening people to candy.
“Skittles are candy; refugees are people. It’s an inappropriate analogy. We respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
This statement was briefed to The Hollywood Reporter, who put the quote into a tweet which was subsequently retweeted more than 27,000 times. In the following days, marketers praised the response for clearly removing the company’s product from any perception of endorsing the politically-charged image, without offering broader comment on the issue of immigration.
Despite Wrigley’s “refraining from further comment” which could be “misinterpreted as marketing”, the candy has received very widespread attention from the incident.
MediaMiser estimated that in first 48 hours following the initial tweet by Trump Jr, more than 10,000 print and online articles were published that mentioned both Trump and Skittles, with an estimated readership of more than four billion.
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This clearly represents more significant exposure than one imagines most Skittles PR and advertising campaigns could generate. Being pulled into the political discourse, however, is not without its perils, according to Anthony Johndrow, a co-founder at Reputation Economy Advisers.
“[The] risk is often greater than reward. Emotional, negative public events or issues are best avoided or treated with humility if your brand is somehow dragged in.”
The simple humility in Wrigley’s response was the key to its success, according to Careen Winters, head of corporate reputation practice at PR firm MWW. “I think you will probably see a lot of mimicry of that approach going forward,” she said. “It’s worked for Skittles more than once. I think you’ll see other brands follow their lead.”
Winters’ prediction was proved correct less than a month later, when popular breath mint Tic Tac fell into the Trump media vortex. Footage, more than a decade old, emerged of Trump making untoward comments to an actress, including the suggestion that he was going to eat a Tic Tac “just in case I start kissing her”.
Ferrero quickly responded to its (minor) position in the ensuing scandal with a tweet.
Tic Tac respects all women. We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.
— Tic Tac USA (@TicTacUSA) October 8, 2016
Although the statement was similar and possibly inspired by the statement Wrigley’s released a few weeks prior, there is an importance difference: this response was posted on the brand’s own social media account, @TicTacUSA.
Although Tic Tac, like Skittles, was placed in the political discourse through no intent of its own, it’s arguable that to a significant extent, Tic Tac ‘news-jacked’ its way into the headline by responding to an issue which was not centrally about them.
The US electoral proceedings of 2016 are hardly the first to drag brands into the election, but the ability for brands to transcend conventional marketing wisdom that brands and politics don’t mix, appears to be a unique reaction to increasingly political conscious demographics.
Join us next time for a look at the brands which willingly hijacked the 2016 presidential election and how it all went down.