Guest author Paul Flatters, managing director of Trajectory Partnership examines the realities of the new polarised politics and the impact on brand values.
At Trajectory, we have always produced an annual ‘trends for the year ahead’ client presentation but, in all honesty, we have done it somewhat reluctantly. In our view, the calendar ticking over from 31st December to 1st Jan is just another day.
There is no reason to suppose that any single day will herald a whole new set of trends. This just jars a little with our methodological sensibilities in ways which need not detain us here. We get over ourselves, of course. Our market expects a ‘trends for the year ahead’ presentation, so we deliver one.
So far, 2017 is proving us wrong. January 2017 felt like a real turning point, particularly in relation to politics. Yes, we spotted the emergence of today’s polarised politics back in 2012 (we dubbed it The New Morality back then), but the realities of the new polarised politics have taken much clearer shape this year. With Trump in the White House, the UK’s Brexit negotiating stance firming up and the battle lines drawn for elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands, we now have a much clearer sense of our new political reality.
This is the politics of the 52% versus the 48% in the UK and the politics of the 49% (Trump) versus the 51% (Clinton, whether supported by illegal immigrant votes or not) in the US.
Heroes or Villains
The debates are framed in such a way that the centre ground has disappeared. The Third Way is no way. You are either Remain or Leave, for Trump or against, a Patriot or a Globalist (Marine Le Pen’s current dichotomy of choice). Ifs, buts and maybes are so last century – are you with us or not?
Symbolism matters more in a polarised politics where there are only heroes or villains. Perhaps this explains the current preoccupation with ‘Trump handshake analysis’. How comfortable was Theresa May holding his hand down those steps? Was Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, clenched for the full 18 seconds against his will? And, having seen this, did Justin Trudeau really rehearse and perfect the ‘flat hand’ hand shake to avoid a similar fate?
This new political mood signals a new era and new challenges for brands and branding. Appearances matter. Already many brands have become uncomfortably embroiled in the new politics on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, Skittles, Tic Tac and New Balance all felt the need to respond when they unexpectedly found themselves included in the Trump campaign narrative.
Pepsi and Kellogg’s chose to enter the fray. The Pepsi CEO first appeared to criticise some aspects of Trump’s policy then, faced with Trump supporters calling for a boycott of Pepsi products, joined his Strategic and Policy forum along with other business leaders. In November, Kellogg’s pulled its adverts from Breitbart saying that the values of the alt-right site did not align with their own.
In response, Breitbart’s Editor-in-chief Alexander Marlow called for a boycott of the company’s products, saying: “For Kellogg’s, an American brand, to blacklist Breitbart News in order to placate left-wing totalitarians is a disgraceful act of cowardice.”
New context for brand values
This has echoes of the pressure being placed on brands like John Lewis and M&S in the UK by the Stop Funding Hate campaign to stop advertising in pro-Brexit newspapers (primarily The Daily Mail and The Sun). Stop Funding Hate says that it exists ‘to provide a voice for customers to encourage ethical brands to live up to their values’. Gary Lineker says that he is trying to persuade Walkers to stop advertising in The Sun and The Daily Mail.
This is a totally new context for brand values and ethics to operate in. It makes it even more important that brands are firm and certain about their values and the narrative that underpins those values.
It seems increasingly likely that any brand making an ethical claim – be that support for community, inclusivity, diversity or equality – is likely to be called out on these values in the current climate. And they can be called out by either side. The response has to be sure footed and strong. Casual corporate value signalling was always fraught with danger, but it could be disastrous in the current climate.
Our advice would be for any brand with an ethical claim to rehearse these scenarios. How would your brand respond to being embraced or targeted by either side? If you don’t have an answer that you would feel confident debating with either Stop Funding Hate or Breitbart, you need one.