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Industry Contributor 19 Aug 2020 - 3 min read

Marketing and politics are colliding as strange bedfellows

By Nicola Watkins, Strategist - Carat Sydney

The journal of Customer Needs and Solutions published a report about the multiple ‘intersections’ between marketing and politics, with the intent to stimulate more research on this topic that has a political focus and a variety of perspectives.

This could not be timelier in today’s landscape of people’s evolving and demanding expectations from brands. People’s reactions to these ‘intersections’ has been crucial to monitor.

Some marketers intentionally adopt overt political stances through their brands. However, the increasing polarization taking place in the US, and felt heavily around the world, means consumers are starting to see (and even seek out) the covert or unintentional political stances in marketing decisions.

Key points:

  • The similarities between the applications of marketing in commercial and political contexts suggests marketers have an ethical and social obligation to understand their influence on society.
  • In a world where political divisiveness remains in the news, it is becoming increasingly difficult for brands to avoid their actions being seen through a partisan lens.
  • There is a genuine concern that marketing techniques, targeting capabilities and bias algorithms stoke polarization, fuel echo chambers, and reduce exposure to alternative perspectives.  
Recognising the power of marketing means we should accept that marketing’s implementation may have unintentional impacts beyond the scope of affecting a business’ bottom line.

Being aware of the power and influence of a brand, beyond impacting the business’ bottom line, has never been more important in Australia’s current landscape. We are in a middle of a cultural shift, brought on by a myriad of issues and events, that are driving political polarization. There is a growing divide between younger and older Australians, with more people falling into the far corners of partisanship through minority votes.

In response, marketing departments are having their brand narrative seen through a partisan lens. Australian audiences have seen many brands take intentional or unintentional political stances through their communications, their behaviours, their values, or the actions of their CEOs. The absence of these words or actions is sometimes also equally judged.

We have recently seen this in Australia through the difficulties faced by the financial industry and its response to the bushfire crisis. Financial brands announced their support for those affected by bushfires, while the same companies continued to invest in the fossil fuel industry to increase the profitability of their business. These marketers battle to control their brand narratives as they lack continuity with their company’s actions. This is where consumers step in and over-write the narrative by politicising these inconsistencies.

This highlights an important extension of the article’s point regarding ethical obligations: the need to balance the often-opposing responsibilities to customers and shareholders. Customers’ shifting expectations means we are demanding more responsibility from brands regarding societal impact, yet this needs to be balanced with a company’s financial responsibility for their shareholders and owners (AKA “Do better for the world” vs “Make me money” respectively).

This creates an inability to fulfill both responsibilities, as a brand is only as strong as the consistency of its narrative. This can be seen in Facebook’s evolving narrative amongst the Stop Funding Hate Speech movement, as well as in Starbucks’ stance on diversity and race issues. Successful organisations invest time, energy, and resources to control and influence a powerful narrative that can make or break their business.

Yet despite all advice to maintain authenticity and build trust, our industry is struggling to find a consistent solution that can balance both responsibilities. As Australia’s political landscape becomes increasingly polarised, it has never been more important for a brand narrative to align the motivations of both customers and shareholders. A great start would be having the customer’s voice represented by marketers during board-level decision-making.

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Nicola Watkins, Strategist

Carat Sydney

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