Twas the night before the election, and all through the land, brands were wondering should they take a political stance.
OK, it’s not very poetic. But we’re starting to notice more food and drink/hospitality companies getting involved with politics – either intentionally, with a political aim (Brewdog offering free pints to voters; Wetherspoons promoting Brexit) or playing it for laughs (KFC’s response to the Conservative’s jibe, Burger King’s ‘Whopper’ on the side of a bus). But what are the risks and rewards of brands getting political?
Having answered hundreds of F&B/hospitality briefs through the years I can say it’s rare to see a brand that actively seeks to mix politics with advertising. It’s almost a given in brand guidelines that you don’t go near these things. You see some version of the words ‘premium yet accessible’ and ‘chic but not stuffy’ in almost all briefs, and almost never ‘be political’ or ‘divisive’.
So for this reason alone, there’s a huge reward here to be had here for the right brand.
The Risks Involved
The risk of being a political brand comes in how you go about it. There’s a thin line between influencing your consumers to get politically active or to vote for a particular candidate. After all, we don’t need thousands of young voters leaning to one party just because their beer told them to.
The major risks are for society, though, not towards the brand. Take BrewDog’s recent activity: as a nation, we want everyone who can vote to do so – but for the right reasons. This campaign won’t bring in a mass of non-voters who are ticking a box just to get a free beer.
But if it did – or rather, if this was a tactic that all brands got involved with – then our democracy would be at risk. It’s of paramount importance that the UKs voters are informed on their decisions and know what and why they’re voting. (See Brexit for reference.) And brands taking a political stance are unlikely to be the best sources of this information.
In fact, on the topic of Brexit and democracy at risk – Wetherspoons was likely appealing to a large number of its core customers by promoting Brexit, but it very possibly alienated as many. Not to mention potentially breaching the law by promoting a political message without shareholder approval. Did this have any impact on the vote? It may well have done.
And it definitely created some legal issues for Wetherspoons too, though it continued (and continues) to promote Brexit. But has it damaged its brand? Hard to say. Its share price dipped in January 2019, but has since recovered and is higher than ever.
The Future For Voting Punk
As for BrewDog – as long as it keeps itself from promoting any particular party, it’ll likely escape any brand damage and come out with another PR win – and maybe a few new fans in the process. This campaign fits right into its larger narrative and brand positioning. Anyone suggesting that Brewdog should “keep politics out of my beer” is definitely in the minority and probably not a core brand customer anyway.
However, there aren’t many brands who could (should, or would) do what Wetherspoons did over Brexit. And nor should there be.
In the States we’re seeing Bernie Sanders rise to the challenge of not accepting one cent in donations from corporations in an attempt to move money out of politics. He’s battling lobbyists and philanthropists across the country. Imagine if he also had to square up against the advertising power of Budweiser & Mars.
Could political parties start paying for brands to promote their message? That dystopia doesn’t feel like a great leap, if we were to go down this road.
Ethics or Politics?
Ultimately, most brands should remain impartial, though it can be hard to see where politics ends and brand ethics begins. And as more companies strive to do the right thing, ethics/purpose in brand is becoming a much bigger issue.
To move outside of F&B/hospitality for a moment – a company such as Patagonia revolves around living in as eco-friendly a way as possible and is outspoken against many of the current US government’s policies. This is widely seen as a good pairing of both cause and brand. For Patagonia it would almost seem strange if they didn’t speak out against such actions.
But for most brands, I’d suggest thinking long and hard before taking any side in politics. To suggest that their customers start to take an interest in the politics around them, as in Brewdog’s case, absolutely – for the right brand, this can be a good move. But the Wetherspoons/Brexit route is far more risky, and brands pushing a political stance for commercial ends or preference is not a positive move for society.