Welcome Aboard the Brand Wagon

by Ron Tite

June 23, 2017

Why brands are selling causes in a world where we're all getting Trumped


There used to be a time when, in between commercials for no-cholesterol granola bars and faster, faster, better, better technology commercials (bung-bung-bung-bung), you might see a public service announcement for a not-for-profit organization. Whatever the focus, the PSA always reminded us that in the middle of mass consumerism, there were still people in need and important issues to solve.


So much for respect. The PSA’s lunch is being eaten by the private sector. Not-for-profits used to own the gushy emotional space where important issues went to be discussed and debated. Now, for-profit brands are lining up to make you cry, make you proud and make you think about big topics like diversity, immigration and same-sex marriage. Price points and product features? Please. In this year’s Super Bowl, Audi abandoned fuel injection and lease rates to go on the record about gender equality in the workforce. You go, girl. 


Wait. What? When did brands go from solving “Ring Around the Collar” to trying to solve issues around the world? Welcome to the latest “brandwagon”: Brand Activism.


Tick Tock. The Battle is for Time.

People used to vote with their wallets. Now they vote with their time. And when it comes to that battle, brands are getting their butts whipped by the internet. There’s more compelling, more entertaining and more relevant content available than the sales-biased-legal department-approved-procurement-sourced work being served up by brands. To go along with the wide array of authentic user-generated social content, there are more books to read, more music to listen to and more Archie-inspired TV shows to binge on.


Phase 1: From Product to Purpose.

Brands started to fight back by elevating their conversation to something people actually care about. Red Bull believed that life should be lived on the edge. Dove believed that beauty needed to be redefined. P&G believed that we should celebrate moms just as much as we celebrate our athletes.


Those who got it, got it. Brands began supporting their beliefs with web series, podcasts and feel-good surprise videos. They went from product-focused activities to purpose-focused activities. They may not have been political in nature but they were certainly heading in that direction.


Then, out of nowhere, we got Trumped.



Never-Breaking Breaking News.

You think competing with a top news story like a tornado or terrorist attack is tough? Try winning the battle for time when Anderson Cooper interrupts regularly scheduled programming on an hourly basis to provide a new shocking headline out of DC.


“I’d love to talk about my long distance plan but did you hear what Kellyanne Conway just said?!” 


We’ve been dominated by all things Trump and we don’t even live there. Executive orders, fake news, alternative facts, Russian intrigue, Mexican walls, Samantha Bee rants, Alec Baldwin cold opens, small-hand memes, Conway contradictions, Spicy Spicer and a ton more. When it comes to President Cheetoh, we can’t get enough. It’s part outrage, part politics, part humour and part drama. We all have an opinion and we can’t wait to join the fray. If brands want to be a part of the conversation, they have to tag along.


Real Issues, Real Time.

Like it or not, real-time marketing has always worked. Whether it’s the non-stop presence of Santa during holiday communication season, bad April Fools Day jokes on April 1, or cottage-themed lake parties around May 2-4, brands connect best when they align promotional messaging with consumer interests.


Whether it’s in our politically siloed Facebook feeds or our issues-aligned lunchtime conversations, we’re standing up for what we believe. That’s what’s been on our mind. In the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, brands have joined in. Starbucks has pushed racial equality and refugee support. Lyft donated money to the ACLU. 84 Lumber acknowledged the hardworking American Way. Even Molson Canadian and the Government of Ontario celebrated our maple leaf diversity. Nice, eh?


It’s real-time marketing at its best. You think Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” was good because we all cared about the same football game? Try launching a pro-diversity campaign the day after an immigration ban. Top of heart. Top of mind.


Pick a Side, Any Side.

The result of all the attention is a consumer who’s digging in their heels, re-affirming their beliefs, standing up for what they believe in and un-friending anyone who disagrees. Not surprisingly, they want brands to pick a side, too.


Oh, you’re a retailer who is still carrying Ivanka’s line? They’ll start #Baycott.


So you’re advising the President upon economic matters? Look out for #DropUber.


You don’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Consumers will take to whatever social platform they can to voice their displeasure and attempt to sway consumer choice to the brands that support their take on the world.


Stand up. Speak out. Pick a side. Consumers certainly are.


Ron Tite is CEO of The Tite Group, a content marketing agency in Toronto.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Applied Arts.


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