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September 3, 2009
Brands and Stands

Is it good for marketers to get caught up in issue-oriented debates?

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time before modern communication where people didn’t care much about brands. In the town people lived, they knew the butcher, or the cobbler, or the dressmaker. They knew their families. And they did business with them if they wanted to.

These days, it’s rare to meet the grower of our food or the makers of our clothes. So what recourse do today’s consumers have if they don’t like the values or beliefs of the companies whose goods they buy?

The health care debate, among other political issues, has racheted up the tension in America, and some advertisers and brands find themselves caught in the crossfire. Advertisers have been pulling out of Glenn Beck's radio and TV shows, in reaction to customer protests over some of his comments. And Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey raised the ire of many of his customers by writing an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal that emphasized free-market solutions for health care reform.

In the case of Whole Foods, assuming much of its customer base is left-of-center or progressive, does the CEO have any obligation to mirror their views? Clearly not. Is he damaging his company’s brand by not mirroring their views? That’s another issue.

Mackey clearly doesn’t seem to bend his views to conform to those of his customers, and that’s fine. I’m sure he knows what type of people butter his whole grain spelt bread. (Mackey is also a guy who went onto discussion boards anonymously and badmouthed his competitors—a clear breach of fiduciary duty. So maybe the cheese fell off his cracker a long time ago.) Mackey has every right to speak his mind, and customers have every right to boycott Whole Foods in protest. Some people think it’s fine to protest a publicly traded company over the view of its CEO, even if the real impact may be on its customer-facing employees.

It’s rare, but some companies do put their values front and center. Ben ‘n Jerry’s did (in the days before its founders sold the company), Coors, Chick-fil-A, and others make plain where its founders stood. And they leave it to the customers to decide whether to patronize those businesses or not. There was, for a time, BuyBlue.org, a site that followed the money and documented companies that donated to more progressive causes and candidates.

But most companies aren’t very public with their views. And this is where the new “join the conversation” and “let’s be friends and have dialogues with brands” thinking starts to get tested. Because the conversation isn’t going to go as smoothly as marketers want it to. Many of the people protesting Whole Foods are big fans, and big spending customers, of the brand. And they’re mad because they do feel such loyalty, and the opinion of the CEO makes them think that loyalty isn’t returned in kind.

Conversely, many people think the boycott advocates are misguided. So this is what we’re seeing: Left-wing Whole Foods customers getting themselves in a twist and others writing letters to Glenn Beck’s advertisers. Right-wingers pledging extra support to Glenn Beck’s ex-advertisers and praising John Mackey. Lots of noise. Lots of vitriol. And marketers getting distracted by having to step lightly around a vocal but small minority of their customers when they’d rather focus on increasing sales in a bad economy. But to some customers, boycotting is the only way they think they could make a difference.

What role do ad agencies play in all this? Very little, if any.

Most agencies wouldn’t dare interfere in the political squabbles of their clients for fear of getting fired. There’s very little upside to getting involved. It’s true ad agencies tend to foster more open discussion internally than most businesses. But you don’t want to spout off about politics without really knowing who you’re talking to. It’s easier not to discuss politics in any context, unless you’re really willing to put your balls on the chopping block. So that sort of advocacy doesn’t tend to show up in media plans or creative campaigns.

What if there were more overt advocacy from brands?

I’d actually like to see more companies take stands on controversial topics, and let consumers decide where they want to shop and what they want to buy. Every company – even most ad agencies – have “core values” of some sort. Whether they live up to them is another thing altogether. So let them be more vocal and transparent about those values, and matching their actions to the words.

That sort of passion might sway customers, and then again it might drive them away. It would definitely liven up a world clogged with parity products. But it takes a lot to change consumer behavior. And so far, Glenn Beck and Whole Foods are doing just fine.

Plus, as it happens, many businesses and industries lobby both political parties and hedge their bets to cover themselves no matter who’s in control. Perhaps if more consumers knew what brands and the people behind them really stood for and it turned out to be objectionable, those brands might see their sales nosedive.

And that, above all else, would be the true death panel.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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