The recent president election revealed a divide in the nation that stemmed beyond ethnic identities. The harsh words of the candidates and their supporters that fueled news stories and social media debates, created a picture of a nation that condemns differences rather than one that appreciates diversity.
Political views and interests of consumers created polarization within the market. Rather than ignore this divide, marketers used this segmentation to the brand’s advantage. In the U.S., politics are essentially split – conservative and liberal. In other words, if a company reveals its political stance, there is 50 percent chance that only half of its target audience will side with its values.
For instance, backlash occurred when Peter Thiel, CEO of PayPal, publicly acknowledged his support for President-Elect Trump, resulting in liberal consumers removing their accounts from the website; however, the company was praised by conservative consumers. The same situation occurred when the Ben & Jerry brand publicly supported the Black Live Matters and LGBT groups. Both brands lost target audience members, but also gained new supporters.
How extreme can this practice become?
Well, according to academic research, the practice is commonplace; consumers are segmented based on preferences and interests. Therefore, if an individual favors a candidate and their beliefs, they will denounce anything and anyone that is in direct opposition. This divide makes it easier for marketing companies to reach a specific target audience member, but creates problems for brands that market to many types of consumers.
Inclusivity in marketing establishes a target audience that is narrow enough to motivate an action, such as making a purchase, but broad enough to tap into new audiences. A marketing campaign can reach audiences members in two different niche markets, however, marketers are now tasked with staying neutral and politically pleasing to the consumer.
Even though this seems simple, social media and the Internet makes this task rather difficult. Consumers have more power in determining the success of certain brands and companies because of technology. This means a neutral brand can lose its appeal if a CEO or a top official, such as the cases with PayPay and Ben & Jerry, publicly express views that are not pleasing or inclusive to segmented groups. Once consumers catch wind of this information, groupthink essentially occurs resulting in a brand damaging its image and losing target audience members.
So what does this mean for the future of marketing?
Do we have to tip-toe around certain topics and not aggravate our target audiences?
Even though segmentation is naturally occurring because consumers are creating the divide, marketers do not have to participate and brand to a particular political audience. However, if brands choose to use politics in their marketing messages, they must be aware of the consequences. Although consumers willingly seek out brands and information that aligns with their political preferences, this may not create financial or relational success for companies.
Chick-fi-la, for example, is still trying to rebrand its image after news surfaced in 2012 that the company’s funded anti-gay non-profit organizations. Consumers and LGBT organizations are still reeling over the news, but the company is still considered the number one fast-food restaurant in the country.
So the question: Stay neutral or become political?