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Marketing in the Trump Age

The Omnishopper Conference in Minneapolis kicked off with Peter Horst, former Hershey’s CMO, addressing the juicy – and somewhat scary – topic of Marketing in The Trump Age. Brands are living in a new political reality along with everyone else, and Horst presented some first principles to guide you through it. The 45th President is as much a symptom of the new reality as a cause of it – the world Horst described is one of unprecedented consumer closeness via new media, and lightning-fast speed of reaction.

It’s also a world where people – whatever their political views - often feel powerless in the face of the big issues affecting their lives. In such a world, sustainable change is hard, but deleting an app, or joining a social media boycott, is very easy. Brands are in the political frontline whether they want to be or not. Horst’s central hypothesis is that thanks to social media, e-commerce and m-commerce, news and outrage spreads very rapidly and corporate reputation has a measurable effect on brand health in ways it didn’t before.

Can’t brands just keep their heads down and say nothing? Horst pointed out that not taking a position is, in fact, also a decision. It’s a perfectly valid decision, but it needs the same degree of care and scenario planning as any other.

Horst offered a bunch of high-profile examples to support this. On the activist side, he showed a Cadillac ad which offered a rather vague unifying social message – but consumers responded with scorn, since the Cadillac brand is simply not a credible ambassador for unity. On the passive side, he discussed Budweiser’s brand story Super Bowl ad, a heart-warming tale of an immigrant’s struggles in 19th Century America which was planned and shot long before the Trump administration, but was released a week or two after his “travel ban” policy sparked mass protests. Cue “pitchforks and torches” from an online mob of Trump supporters convinced Bud was taking a shot at the policy.

It looks like you can’t win. But in fact, Horst says, you can. He offered a “Brand Resilience” checklist to put brands on a surer footing in this volatile new world.

First, find your core – go “beyond the mission statement” to work out what’s really at the centre of your brand. There’s a sweet spot, Horst claims, between ‘what is good about your brand’ and ‘what is good for society’. If you can find it, you’ll have values you can confidently assert. (If you fail to find it, you might end up like Pepsi with their Kendall Jenner ad, earning a public Twitter rebuke from Dr Martin Luther King’s daughter.) It’s crucial to make sure your leadership is fully aligned on this, though. Horst mentioned Target, whose decision to publicise an existing policy on letting customers use whichever bathroom they felt comfortable with caused a storm. The policy was and still is a long-standing one, but the Target CEO was caught flat-footed by the decision to make a statement on it.

Second, understand your constituencies. We’re all used to segment and customer persona profiles which talk in great detail about their shopping habits. From now on, Horst says, they need to include values and even voting behaviour. You can’t know your customers unless you know what they believe and value. Once you do know, you can do the math as to the upside and downside of customers who agree or disagree with a particular stand – remembering to weight the sums by your brand values and purpose.

Third, develop scenarios. If your brand has defined values, you’ll have plenty of chances to demonstrate and build communication around those. But sometimes you might need to go on the defensive – whether it’s about a piece of marketing that backfires, a political intervention, customer action or just something random and unpredictable. You need to be prepared. What this means, according to Horst, is a degree of unusual honesty about your brand’s possible failings – the ways in which it hasn’t, in truth, been walking the walk. He held up Audi as an example – their Super Bowl ad made a powerful feminist statement about equal pay. It didn’t take a lot of digging to discover that the Audi boardroom was not quite as diverse as the values behind the ad might imply. That left Audi with a dilemma – step back and look like bandwagon jumpers, or plough on and risk hypocrisy. But it was an entirely avoidable problem – either find a different cause or lay the groundwork (with a high-profile leadership diversity program, for instance).

Fourth, embrace proactive transparency. If people know what you stand for, that will limit the damage when the fur starts flying. Horst gave the example of a small knitting shop which showcased its pink yarn in advance of the Women’s March earlier this year. As with Bud, pro-Trump supporters threatened boycotts. But this time existing customers of the shop stood up and defended it – they had always been a friendly, inclusive place which welcomed customers of any political persuasion. Crisis averted.

Once you’ve got those things in place, you’re in a position for brave execution. The storm you planned for, Horst says, is going to happen. Plan ahead and you’ll get the response right. Brands need to respond to controversy in the same venue it happens – be that Twitter, Instagram, or traditional media. And they have 24 hours – or even less – to respond before the story gets away from them and any damage is done. They should keep the response simple and “stay the course”: Horst quoted one anonymous CEO who lamented, “We changed our position, but just made everyone mad.”

Finally, Horst offered a welcome example of a brand that got it right – Heineken, with their “Worlds Apart” ad, which brought people of wholly opposite viewpoints together to collaborate on a project and ultimately talk over a beer. The Heineken ad worked, he said, because its aspirations were appropriately scaled (get people to talk to each other), and the brand could play a credible role. The storytelling felt authentic and the brand was clearly in it for the long haul.

Brands already face constant technological change. Now they must outfit themselves for a turbulent culture, too. But Horst’s advice is ultimately positive:  with planning and transparency, brands can navigate it.

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