March 29

Brands and Politics: a Dangerous Mix?

by Yamuna Hopwood

Today’s best marketers know that the key to success is to focus less on the product itself, and more on the beliefs and values behind it. With that in mind, Apple fans buy more than technology—they’re buying elitism, creativity, and youth. And when teenage boys choose Axe, they do so because of the self-confidence, machismo, and sex appeal they hope to gain by wearing it. Well branded companies have their own, specific identities that can quickly be identified by consumers. But if brands can now have their on set of beliefs, values, and morals, does this mean they can also stake their claim in the political arena?

Some companies think yes. Oreo, for instance, voiced its support for gay marriage last summer, when it posted a picture of six layers of rainbow cream filling sandwiched between the classic Oreo cookie on its Facebook page. To no one’s surprise, the campaign went viral almost immediately and in just two short days, what started as an innocent status update turned into a full-scale political argument spanning 38,000 comments, and nearly six times that many “likes.” Tha the Oreo fan page would be the home base for a political debate, but by bringing gay marriage into the conversation, Oreo essentially invited its followers to put in their two cents. Needless to say, Facebook users—especially those against gay rights—made sure their voices were heard loud and clear. In a matter of hours, conservative organizations including One Million Moms started threatening to boycott all Kraft products, if the ad wasn’t withdrawn. One representative wrote,“Kraft foods and Oreo cookies have decided to toss the morals that formed our great nation right out the window! Boycott [them] and hit them where it hurts…in the wallet”(Huffington Post, 2012).

And Oreo isn’t the only company to suffer the consequences of announcing its political agenda. A few months later, Chic-fil-A operating officer Dan Carthy sided with the idea of “a traditional family” and admitting to donating to anti-gay hate groups including the Family Research Council and the Marriage & Family Foundation. The fast-food chain experienced similar fall-out, which shook up business to the point that Carthy withdrew his comments, saying “We are a restaurant company focused on food, service, and hospitality; our intent is to leave the policy of marriage to the government and political arena”(USA Today 2012).

Could Carthy be smart in deciding to back away from politics? It’s certainly possible.  After all, an individual’s political beliefs are personal, and it stands to reason that a public company trying to cater to as many people as possible would avoid saying anything controversial, at the risk of alienating thousands of people away from its product.

Then again,  isn’t all press good press? Kraft representatives claim that the positive comments more than compensated for all the  negative feedback Oreo received (Huffington Post 2012). Thousands of people praised the brand for taking such a bold stand. It was even applauded throughout mainstream news outlets and talk shows including ABC News, CNN, and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. If nothing else, it showed what Oreo is willing to do to keep its brand in the news.

But did it do anything for cookie sales? The annual report says no. Although Oreo’s revenues have been growing rapidly over the past decade—finally reaching the two-two billion dollar mark in 2011, a close look at the company’s month-to-month sales show that sales were not dramatically affected by the post (PR Newswire 2012).

With that being said, it’s still up for debate whether or not Oreo’s edgy new campaign can be called a success. Cookie sales neither increased nor decreased significantly enough to say, and despite all the publicity, the Oreo brand remains largely uninfluenced .And yet, it provoked such a strong reaction from consumers that it would be thoughtless to say that the gay pride ad made no effect on the brand at all. Was voicing their political values a smart marketing strategy that branded Oreo as compassionate and socially aware, or did the company simply manage to alienate conservative cookie-eaters from their brand? One thing is for sure—politics creates buzz. The only question is what that means for businesses in the long term.