How are brands connecting with US consumers following a divisive election?

In November, one week before the US election, the Innovation Group published The Political Consumer, a deep dive into how brands can successfully navigate today’s hyper-politicized landscape. How have brands responded in the weeks following the campaign?

So far, not many have. “I’m getting this ‘wait and see’ attitude that seems to be prevalent,” says Douglas Quintal, a senior executive-in-residence at Emerson College’s department of marketing communication. “We’ve seen how the markets reacted, we’ve seen how the public has reacted, but as far as the new rotation of commercials or ads coming out, it’s really difficult to assess right now.”

An election night that took many by surprise may account for some of the silence. Johnnie Walker aired an ad on Election Day titled “Keep Walking America” with actors that spoke both English and Spanish that touted the country’s progress and aimed to speak to a young, multicultural generation. According to Adweek, the company scrapped a planned follow-up that would have celebrated female empowerment, titled “Jane Walker,” in the wake of the election results.

Some brands turned to messages of unity and acceptance both during and after the campaign. Airbnb’s “Accept” tied a message of diversity into its updated Community Commitment guidelines, while Amazon showed an Anglican vicar and a Muslim imam building friendship amid growing xenophobia. Election ads from Jeep and Tecate beer showed people of different viewpoints united by a common product.

“A lot of brands can’t successfully come out after a very contentious and acrimonious election season and come out with something that really resonates with all humans, and makes them feel better,” said Kerry O’Grady, an assistant professor at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. “One of the things during the election that disappointed me the most was the lack of storytelling and ads that really bridge that gap and bring people together.”

One example cited by O’Grady for its storytelling was Ben & Jerry’s “One Sweet World” ad that aired after the election. More direct than other spots, “One Sweet World” follows a cherry standing up to a group of lemons, who are supporting a candidate of their kind at confrontational rallies. In the end, the two fruits develop a friendship that sparks new life into the town’s community. “We don’t live in a one flavor world,” reads the final tagline.

 

“Tell America it’s Great,” from creative agency The Garden North America, showed that it is possible for brands tapping into messages of inspiration and acceptance to gain some viral traction. The ad featured a series of Canadians sending messages of inspiration to their southern neighbors, praising the country’s character, creativity and successes. “Tell America It’s Great” was able to tug on viewer’s heartstrings without relying on clichés, and connect to viewers without commenting on election specifics.

 

Other companies took a stab at using humor to tackle the situation. Spotify’s “Moving” ad (and accompanying playlist) played off the joke that many unsatisfied Americans considered moving to Canada. AirCanada’s “Test Drive Canada” ad used the same theme, tracking searches for “How can I move to Canada?” in real time.

 

An election that caused some major agencies to re-assess how they reach consumers in non-coastal areas also serves as a reminder of some of the difficult choices brands face in a politicized environment. In its faceoff with Breitbart News, Kellogg faces pressure from both sides of the aisle, while the CEOs of both and New Balance and GrubHub saw their own personal political opinions cause a perhaps unanticipated level of brand backlash.

“It’s good and bad,” said Quintal. “It’s bad in so far as nothing is really standing out right now and capturing the kind of attention that would be hoped. But the good thing is, I think advertisers have been cautious in the way they’re going to navigate this terrain, with the inauguration being the next big test, if brands start jumping on the bandwagon there.”

The industry overall is also contending with uncertainty. A Wall Street Journal report posted shortly after the election pointed to a potential slowdown in ad spending for 2017, referring to “Brexit anxiety” that resulted in a similar outcome following the UK referendum.

For more analysis, download The Political Consumer report.