Every year, brands shell out millions of dollars for highly prized Superbowl commercial slots, taking the rare opportunity to reach literally hundreds of millions of potential customers. This year was no exception, but what marked 2017 out as different was the surprising number of brands nailing their colours to the mast, largely in thinly veiled opposition to President Trump. Should brands utilise such public platforms to take partisan political stances, and if so, how should it be done?

During this year’s Superbowl there were numerous examples of brands making overtly political statements. Take Budweiser, for example, who used their slot to highlight the German origins of one of their founders in a clear condemnation of Trump’s controversial immigration policies.

Or what about Audi and their beautifully shot, George Clooney narrated ad that explicitly addressed issues of female empowerment and structural inequality?

Brands aren’t simply making these kind of liberal political statements in Superbowl commercials. Household names are becoming increasingly brave in publicly stating how they stand on key issues. For example, numerous brands including Starbucks, Google and Facebook have publicly stated their opposition to Trump’s recent policies, and various British and international companies were not shy with broadcasting their stances in last spring’s pre-Brexit debates, on both sides of the fence.

One of the most important pillars holding up a strong brand is a clear set of values. Values are what define a brand, make it different from its competition, and help to guide almost every decision made. At Underscore, understanding and developing a clear set of values is perhaps the most crucial building block we use in creating or evolving a brand.

brand values Green Kite

It stands to reason, then, that brands should feel empowered to make strong statements, particularly if such statements clearly resonate with their brand values. By definition, these statements will also resonate with the brand’s target audience, because a brand’s values need to align with the people that it speaks to. From a purely economic perspective, these statements are good for business, winning customers over from competitors. But they can also allow brands to lead the conversation, becoming influencers rather than just soulless salesmen.

Why then, have some of the strong positions taken by brands recently been so widely criticised? On YouTube, dislikes for Audi’s ad currently outweigh the likes by more than 13,000, while Budweiser seems to be suffering a similar (albeit somewhat less vitriolic) fate.

Budweiser could perhaps be blamed for misreading its key demographic.  For a brand so heavily associated with male sports fans, tackling a weighty issue like immigration in the current political climate was particularly incendiary, especially given this demographic’s clear support for Trump (at least in the US). Political statements are always going to elicit opposition, and Budweiser could be said to have fallen foul of enticing this opposition from their own key consumers.

brand values budweiser

This, however, doesn’t explain the backlash towards Audi’s offering. Audi is a premium brand, targeting the well-off, middle class consumer that is highly likely to care strongly about women’s equality issues. What did they get wrong?

The answer, at least in my eyes, come back to brand values. Audi’s ad tried to strongly evoke some of their core brand values, but failed to do it in an authentic way. Instead of seeing Audi’s message of female empowerment as a means of connecting with the brand, many consumers instead cynically read it as a moneymaking ploy at odds with the corporate realities of the business, highlighting the lack of gender diversity at the car manufacturer’s upper echelons.

Starbucks suffered a similar fate when they attempted to roll out their misguided #RaceTogether campaign in 2015. Once again, critics were quick to pick up on the lack of diversity in the Starbucks corporate structure, questioning whether the brand had the right to lead a conversation on race issues.

If brands are going to make strong statements and stand up for their brand values, they should be encouraged and applauded. However, these brands need to do more than simply talk; it’s not enough to just parrot liberal platitudes. Brands need to live their values in a meaningful way, demonstrating to their consumers that can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Without doing this, brands run the risk of coming across as inauthentic, and therefore alienating the very people they were trying to connect with in the first place.