OPINION9 January 2019

Left or right doesn’t matter to brands

Leisure & Arts North America Opinion Retail

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advert was cited by many as the best campaign of last year but its strong stance alienated as well as embraced shoppers. Rebecca Brooks looks at how much brands need to consider political polarisation.


Whether overt messages (Nordstrom dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line) or more subtle takes ( 150 companies including WalMart, Lyft and Southwest airlines joining up for a Time to Vote campaign), many brands have chosen to take up a political yoke when it comes to communications with consumers.

With a climate that has been decidedly polarising for both sides of the political spectrum over the past two years, it can be a risky move to take a stand on one side or the other. This kind of messaging and advertising is spurred by the belief that political preference influences shopping behaviour.

Or does it? Based on a study with Buzzfeed, our data revealed that, despite political leanings, attitudes among our survey respondents were surprisingly similar. The research included data collected from 3,000 participants, ranging in age from 18-54 years. In each age group, broken down by 18-25, 26-36 and 37-54, there was a 50/50 gender split.

For the study, we were interested in how political identification influenced different categories, from social views to ways that people shop. We examined the extremes, focusing on participants who were heavily engaged with politics (reading, commenting, sharing) and who either leaned strongly right or left in their views. What we found? Much more harmony than discord.

Even among highly engaged and partisan consumers, there were almost no differences in our data to suggest that they approach shopping or brands differently. In fact, the only difference was that High Interest Right were more inclined to think our government systems were stable ( 55% compared with 45% of High Interest Left).

When it came to shopping behaviour, and how the groups make purchase decisions, they were nearly identical. On statements around product quality, feature importance and brand values, the two groups scored identically. From a shopping standpoint, their enjoyment and approach to shopping is the same.

So, what do these findings mean for brands? Authenticity is more important than ever before. Bonobos’ #evolvethedefinition campaign is a good example of a brand remaining true to its core values.

One of the videos in its campaign, viewed more than 10 million times, explains: “If you search for ‘masculine,’ it is defined by having qualities traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness. The synonyms paint a picture of men as macho, powerful, red-blooded and vigorous. That limited definition doesn't cover every man out there. Instead of asking men to fit into a preconceived notion of ‘being a man’, let’s #EvolveTheDefinition of masculine and create a world where every man fits.”

As a different kind of clothing company, it has moved away from a lot of the traditional trappings of men’s fashion, so #evolvethedefinition really fits its brand promise. Of course, there are naysayers who feel the brand is trying too hard, but these people aren’t Bonobos’ target audience. Staying true to its brand and vision is a good path to success.

Our research underlines the fact that brand should not pander to flash-in-the-pan, politically charged blowouts. Really, their audience – no matter the politics – wants the same things and has the same worries. There is no value in pursuing a political agenda to win over one side or the other, as proven by the much-analysed Super Bowl ads from both 2016 and 2017. While brands in 2016 attempted – and many failed – to protest the current political climate, 2017 had brands treading lightly in a ‘fraught political landscape’ nervous to alienate any portion of their audience.

The result of all this posturing? Not much. Overall, shoppers don’t change their behaviour based on brand values. They are looking beyond this to product quality. Our data showed that on average, despite political leanings, 56% of our respondents cared more about quality than the value or causes that a specific brand supports.

Rebecca Brooks is a partner and co-founder of Alter Agents