Pepsi and Politics: How Brands Engage with Social Issues

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Team Curious



It’s impossible to get away from politics, the news is dominated by elections, votes and scandals with social media reflecting the division of these political rants. As society is becoming increasingly more divided to what extent should marketers engage in the conversation and does this engagement pay off?
In 2017, a US study found that there is a 36-percentage-point gap between Republican and Democrat leaning respondents across 10 political values, this is up from 15 points when the survey began in 1994, and a wider gap in views than among any other divide (gender, race, age etc.). What’s more, a recent survey in the UK by Hope not Hate showed an incredibly stark contrast between Leave and Remain voters in their attitudes about optimism about the future and fears about radical Islam. The impact of these divides can be seen through the anger felt by those on the different sides; the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 started over a seemingly small decision to remove a Confederate statue in the town square.

All of this begs the question - what should brands do? More and more people expect companies to have a point of view on issues but taking a side could isolate a chunk of your audience.

The biggest ad to take a political stance last year was Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad. The ad attracted a huge amount of backlash, prompting a boycott and the least imaginative and potentially most stupid hashtag of the year #JustBurnIt, where people set fire to their Nike products. Nike’s stock initially fell, however, days after the ad, sales surged 31% and by the end of September 2018, share price had risen to 5% above its value before releasing the ad - worth around $6B to Nike.

More recently, Gillette also took a stance on the social/political issue of toxic masculinity - in the political limelight in the UK after a law against upskirting passed - with their ad, asking men what is the best they can be (if you haven’t watched it either, there’s a link here). Gillette wasn’t a company that needed to take a risk to be seen, as it had 50% market share in the US, but did so anyway, showing the pressure on brands.

The ad saw perceptions of the brand plummet in the UK according to YouGov, despite being originally released in the US - on the other hand, however, Gillette has also managed to get themselves a lot of free media. Whatever the emotional response, the ad currently has 27.5M views on youtube and countless shares on social media.

So what was the impact on sales due to all this outrage? Well, nothing at the moment. Gillette’s sales remain the same as before the ad launched and P&G’s CFO claimed that they had achieved their goal of connecting with a younger audience. if the impact on sales stays the same, Gillette seems to have got away with their gamble.

For brands who aren’t feeling as brave as Nike or Gillette, however, there might still be a way to tap into the cultural zeitgeist without outraging half your audience. The most recent ad from McDonald’s is a playful take on how divided society seems by showing real people passionately arguing about if a Big Mac is still a Big Mac if you add bacon to it. While not exactly cutting political satire, the ad still captures the argumentative and divided mood at the moment. We’ll have to see how the ad performs (though I can’t imagine adding free bacon to a Big Mac is going to do McDonald’s any harm…). If a brand is looking for a way to traverse political issues, they should avoid just trying to simply bring two sides together and play down the issue as Pepsi did in their famous Kendall Jenner advert. The ad proved a PR nightmare for Pepsi and showed that brands need to be extremely cautious in engaging in political issues for the sake of it.

If brands do engage with an issue, they need to actually say something

First and foremostly, brands should consider their audience. If their audience is likely to be engaged with social issues then it’s worth taking a side to see the rewards (as in Nike’s case) but if they are less so then it’ll be a greater risk (as with Gillette). If brands do engage with an issue though, they need to actually say something instead of pretending they can fix it ... with a reality TV star.

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