In 2017, every brand will be political. Whether they like it or not.
The Presidential Election and Brexit ignited a culture war in the West that many brands became embroiled in. From LL Bean to Star Wars, no industry is safe from the increased polarization of American consumers on the political spectrum.
In the 2010’s, crowdculture marketing took off as brands embraced likeable causes to increase engagement, like Dove’s body positivity campaign. In 2016, politics and identity politics clashed with marketing campaigns in an epic way as crowdcultures became more polarized online. In 2017, that culture war will intensify. No brands will be spared.
Social media users are inundated with political content, and participate in it readily. Does that mean your audience wants a break from politics? Do they want to engage with content that’s not aligned with any cause? As seen by #dumpstarwars and #dumpkelloggs, social media users want to know what side your brand is on.
And the sides aren’t necessarily left or right. Social media users want to engage with brands who are involved in a community that they identify with — political and otherwise. Is your food brand vegan and raw, or guilty food porn? Playing both sides or none will lead to lower engagement than the riskier, but more rewarding strategy of alignment. It’s easier than ever for social media users to only follow content aligned with their belief systems: brands that defy categorization may struggle for engagement in 2017.
Feeling more attacked by the opposing side than ever, liberal and conservative seek affirmation in the brands they follow. Are you on my side? is a question users need answered before they engage with businesses or influencers on social media. Being proactive and taking a side on social media can be a huge opportunity, attracting demographics who agree with your views.
But brands won’t be able to keep fans and followers who disagree with their politics — even if no views are concretely stated.
In 2017, brands will struggle to avoid losing followers by picking a side. This year, political sides were chosen for brands by outside agents — people beyond brands’ control. Social media marketers need to have reactive strategies prepared just in case. In 2017, alignment can come from anywhere.
#Dumpstarwars started when a Rogue One screenwriter tweeted his disagreement with Trump. Suddenly, the entire franchise’s brand identity shifted to the left. The ensuing Twitter debate drew a line between #dumpstarwars and Star Wars supporters, picking a side for the brand when its official channels hadn’t sent a single political tweet. Rebel or empire: if you’re not proactive, social media users will make the decision for you. Or Donald Trump will, in the case of LL Bean.
LL Bean’s current brand strategy is largely apolitical, appealing to liberal and conservative consumers — but that might have to change this year.
Divided audiences are the biggest challenge for big brands that have appeal across crowdcultures and the political spectrum. Lose-lose is possible by staying neutral, but win-win is impossible when picking sides. Social media users will not support brands they disagree with; in 2017, they will go out of their way to attack them.
In 2016 BMW pulled advertising from Breitbart after complaints from female audience members, when its ads appeared next to an article about how feminism makes you fat. The giant was then inundated with angry #dumpBMW tweets and Facebook posts from conservative audience members — appeasing one half of its audience angered the other. The controversy redefined the BMW brand, winning big with some.
In 2017, many businesses and influencers will find themselves in the same predicament as BMW: a catch 22 where both acting and not acting are political, and remaining neutral is impossible. Appealing to increasingly polarized audiences who demand alignment on controversial causes is a challenge, probably the biggest challenge, brands will face in 2017.
Amidst the counterculture movements of the late 60s, brands had to choose whether they were in or out. Or, like Peggy Olson’s Burger Chef, some rebranded as bridges between two opposing sides. Either way, marketing was defined by the culture wars raging at at the time — just as it is now.