It's often helpful to think of brands as people. In fact, there are dozens of consultants who do nothing but scrutinize your brand's personality, making recommendations the way a life coach or guidance counselor might suggest a change in attitude. But while brands can -- and should -- ooze personality (think snarky, playful, elegant), the conventional wisdom holds that brands shouldn't share their opinions on anything that might be considered controversial -- which means social, political, and religious topics are usually out of bounds in marketing.
But these days, those old divisions are increasingly hard to live by. For some brands, conversational marketing's two-way street means that controversy will find them whether they like it or not. Meanwhile, other brands purposefully insert themselves into conversations that previous generations of marketers may have considered taboo. But whatever the circumstances, brands are increasingly engaging customers around sensitive topics. Sometimes those attempts fail miserably, and sometimes they work like a charm.
Here are four brands that -- for better or worse -- took a stand. And while the dynamics of each industry and brand will likely vary, it's illuminating to see what the brands did and how consumers reacted.
It's no secret that Chick-fil-A is a Christian company. When you ask diehard Chick-fil-A fans what they think of the fried chicken chain, they'll usually say two things right of the bat. First, the chicken is awesome. Second, don't go on Sundays because Chick-fil-A is closed.
In the South, where Chick-fil-A began, the brand likely scores a lot of points by closing on Sundays. Sure, it puts a dent in the company's bottom line, but religious patrons often praise the chain for its principled stand, noting that they prefer to frequent a chain that reflects their values.
But as Chick-fil-A expands its golden poultry empire (1,600 stores in 39 states), the brand's values have clashed with a new set of patrons who either didn't know about Chick-fil-A's Christian identity, or didn't care -- as long as that identity didn't cross the line into advocacy.
Last year, news headlines screamed a troubling charge: Chick-fil-A was anti-gay because it provided food to a conservative group that opposed gay marriage. Describing the incident, The New York Times wrote:
"Nicknamed 'Jesus chicken' by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet's sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state's most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses."
Chick-fil-A issued the following response on its Facebook page, defending the local store's decision to provide food for the Pennsylvania Family Institute's marriage conference:
"First and foremost, thanks for your patience as we made sure we gathered the facts in regards to recent postings. We have determined that one of our independent Restaurant Operators in Pennsylvania was asked to provide sandwiches to two Art of Marriage video seminars. As our fans, you know we do our best to serve our local communities, and one of the ways we do that is by providing food to schools, colleges, civic groups, businesses, places of worship, not-for-profit groups, etc. At his discretion, the local Operator agreed to simply provide a limited amount of food. Our Chick-fil-A Operators and their employees try very hard every day to go the extra mile in serving ALL of our customers with honor, dignity, and respect."
What's interesting about Chick-fil-A's response is that it seeks to have it both ways. In several statements surrounding the incident, Chick-fil-A made clear that it was a Christian company -- and by extension that it believed marriage was between a man and a woman. But at the same time, Chick-fil-A also tried to position itself as a fast food chain that welcomes everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
So, can the brand have it both ways; can Chick-fil-A speak its mind as a conservative Christian company and also cater to secular fans who may be irked by the brand's beliefs? Probably not. That is, Chick-fil-A won't succeed in pleasing everyone. Talking religion is bound to upset some folks no matter what you say. But unlike other brands, Chick-fil-A didn't just discover its religion. Christianity has been a core facet of the brand's identity since the beginning.
What's interesting about Chick-fil-A's recent feud with gay rights activists is that it highlights just how important it is to have a clear understanding of your brand's core principles if you are going to engage in a religious or political discussion. While many people may not like the conclusion Chick-fil-A has drawn, you can't say that the brand's all are welcome, but this is what we believe approach is inconsistent with Chick-fil-A's identity. And in this instance, Chick-fil-A's keen understanding of its core identity is what helped the brand weather the storm.
Pull into an In-N-Out, and you're going to drive away with the usual -- burger, fries, and a soda, or maybe a milkshake (the menu really is quite basic). But you're also going to get a little dose of religion, whether you like it or not. For decades, the quick serve restaurant has included references to scripture on its packaging. The references are discreet, though they clearly align the brand with Christianity (the chain's founder was a born again Christian).
For atheists and members of non-Christian religious groups, the messaging might be construed as offensive. But In-N-Out has been taking a pro-Christian stance for years, and if there have been any adverse effects, they appear to be minimal. So the question is why. Are the burgers so good that those who might have been offended simply couldn't stand to criticize their favorite fast food joint? Perhaps -- they really are delicious burgers. But the more likely explanation is that the bible messages really aren't all that conspicuous, which means that only customers who are really looking for a fight are likely to denounce In-N-Out.
In a way, the scripture on the cups is the packaging equivalent to a mezuzah or a crucifix -- both are religious, but each has its place as symbols of religiosity in secular society. The scripture on In-N-Out's cups, like crosses worn by Christians or Hijabs worn by Muslim women are a reflection of personal belief, not an overt ad. But what's most telling about In-N-Out's under-the-radar approach to sharing its Christian identity is that the brand has been more overt in the past, with terrible results.
When it chose to rework its iconic radio jingle with an overtly Christian message to celebrate Christmas, the move did in fact spark a controversy, according to Stacy Perman, the author of a history book on the popular burger company titled, "In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules." Perman explains the burger backlash in this YouTube video, noting that today the brand makes no mention of Christianity on its website.
What's most interesting about In-N-Out's Christian identity is that it's a case study in context. A Christian message pushed to customers in the form of a radio ad is simply too much to take. But present those same customers with an opportunity to learn more about the values of the brand and there's no trouble at all. Customers know that In-N-Out is a Christian company, but the decision to engage the brand on religious terms of left for the customer to make.
Call it an accidental stand. When Lowe's bought time on the TLC reality series, "All-American Muslim," marketers for the hardware retailer probably didn't think they were courting controversy. But soon enough, controversy found the brand. A little-known conservative Christian group called the Florida Family Association (FFA) took issue with Lowe's for sponsoring a series which follows the day-to-day lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Michigan.
The FFA organized an email campaign and a boycott of Lowe's, and soon after, the brand announced that it was pulling its support for the show.
"We understand the program raised concerns, complaints or issues from multiple sides of the viewer spectrum, which we found after doing research of news articles and blogs covering the show," a Lowe's spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter.
Twenty years ago, the controversy may have stopped there. After all, Lowe's wouldn't have been the first advertiser to pull the plug on a TV spot after a politically motivated letter-writing (or in this case email) campaign. But these days, the world is a little more complicated; Lowe's decision to dump the show averted a nasty boycott, but it also spawned outrage in the liberal blogosphere. Here's a Slate video that captured some of that backlash as well as the brand's clunky attempt to distance itself from an issue that had quickly become a lightening rod.
In a sense, Lowe's was stuck in a classic damned if you do, damned if you don't position. But should Lowe's have taken a stand and defended its initial decision to advertise on TLC's "All-American Muslim"? If the advertiser's goal is to steer clear of controversies that may negatively impact sales or harm the brand's image, there really is no good answer to that question. In retrospect, it seems as though Lowe's miscalculated, mistakenly believing that the harm done by a conservative boycott would be worse than anger coming from liberals.
But given a scenario with two bad answers, it seems as though the brand's real mistake was its failure to clearly explain its decision. That is, the rationale Lowe's gave was that it essentially didn't want to offend anyone. But by trying to please everyone, Lowe's ended pleasing no one. In the end, Lowe's fumbled by not really taking any stand at all; the brand essentially raised its arms in surrender with a message that said, we don't want to get involved in this debate, but we hope everyone will shop at Lowe's.
The trouble with that message is that it's just not realistic today. Digital media is just too prolific -- and widely available -- to hope that a story like this will die in the news cycle. Weeks after the controversy erupted, a Google News search reveals multiple new stories on the topic. Even worse, Lowe's is little more than a punch line in the latest round of jokes from the culture wars. Maybe there's no such thing as bad press. But Lowe's tried and failed to make this story go away, and the 100,000-plus views on this YouTube video prove that the retailer could have done a better job navigating those troubled waters.
The Pepsi Refresh project isn't political...at least it's not supposed to be. Launched in 2010, the initiative was designed by PepsiCo to award $20 million in grants to individuals, businesses and non-profits that promote a new idea that has a positive impact on their community, state, or the nation. Online voters select the winning projects, and Pepsi's rules explicitly forbid the support or endorsement any political candidate or party.
Not surprisingly, there have been some accusations that Pepsi has broken its own rules against politically oriented pitches by allowing applications from groups with loose ties to political parties. But with Pepsi Refresh going strong after two years, it's hard to say that any of those accusations have amounted to much. Likewise, it's not as if Pepsi has been unmasked as some sort of closeted Super PAC, bent on advancing a liberal agenda and refreshing carbonated beverages. What is striking about Pepsi Refresh is that the brand had the idea in the first place.
In a sense, a contest encouraging young people to change the world is by its very nature a political exercise, although no political party or group is an obvious beneficiary of that goal. But the goal itself speaks to a larger trend facing brands: Millenials, the target demographic for the campaign, want their brands to have a social conscience. There are scores of studies on this, and while the numbers vary, it's fair to say that this generation cares more for social issues than any previous generation. Or, as a Washington Post headline put it: "Millennials to business: Social responsibility isn't optional."
That said, in a sense Pepsi Refresh is a punt. Pepsi isn't taking a stand; the brand isn't saying we believe in X, Y, or Z. Instead, Pepsi is an empty vessel. It thinks what its customers think. Pepsi believes in:
- Funding "less toxic therapies" for children with cancer
- That animals shouldn't be fed antibiotics
- Protecting LGBT youth from bullying
- Ending domestic violence
- Helping veterans overcome mental health issues
These are just a handful of the projects Pepsi has funded. Some are the kinds of ideas anyone could get behind, while others are more of interest to specific groups. But each represents a set of values, and by funding them Pepsi is saying to consumers, "our values are your values."
It's a smart strategy. But it's also a safe one. By letting consumers lead the political conversation, Pepsi protects itself from overstepping its bounds. In other words, the brand gets to have its Pepsi, and drink it too.
So do brands win when they take a stand? I'd like to know what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments section, or tweet the article at your favorite brand and see they have an opinion on the matter.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Rows of diverse stick figure" image via Shutterstock.