Politics find a larger role in marketing

The Examiner

When asked why he doesn’t share his political views publicly, basketball great Michael Jordan famously replied “because Republicans buy sneakers too.” You can agree or disagree with his stance on a philosophical level, but from a purely business standpoint I agree with him that in marketing there is rarely a good reason to eliminate potential customers unnecessarily.

Luke Davis

While corporate America has a long tradition of being politically active in Washington, in the past its actions were usually reserved to lobbyists seeking favors in smoke-filled back rooms. In recent years however, there has been a big shift by big business to embrace politics and controversial issues as a way of attracting some customers even at the risk of losing others. In my opinion, this is a natural reaction to the growing tribalism that seems to be engulfing our nation.

Although I’m sure there are many that preceded it, I first really took note of this strategy about a decade ago when Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made a series of statements that many in the LGBT community found to be openly hostile. Rather than running from this controversy, the company embraced its CEO’s religious views, and sales increased. In fact, according to Business Insider, since the controversy in 2012, Chick-fil-A has more than doubled its annual sales and opened nearly 700 more restaurants. It is now the third largest fast-food chain in America, beating out such names as Wendy’s, Burger King and Taco Bell.

This phenomenal growth, which at least in part was due to its open expression of its beliefs and ideology, did not go unnoticed by other corporate executives seeking ways to convert varying subgroups into loyal customers. As a result many corporations have opted to develop overtly political marketing campaigns, once thought to be the third rail of American business, to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace.

A couple of years ago Gillette drew a lot of attention by diving head first into the #MeToo movement, decrying toxic masculinity as harmful to our society. At about the same time, Nike rolled out its social justice campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. While far more political than has traditionally been the case, these campaigns and many like them were issue focused, while never clearly aligning with a political party or candidate.

However, as the 2020 presidential elections heated up corporations began clearly expressing their support of parties and politicians in ways that I never thought I would see. With so many companies, particularly technology companies, vocal in their opposition to President Trump’s re-election bid and conservatives like Hardee’s CEO Andrew Puzder and Goya CEO Robert Ananue actively campaigning for him, we are rapidly moving to a time in which what you buy and where you shop is a direct reflection on how you vote.

Don’t believe me? As ridiculous as this sounds, progressive activist David Hogg, best known for being a survivor of the Parkland shooting in 2018, recently announced that he was launching a pillow company to “put MyPillow out of business.” Mike Lindell, founder and CEO of MyPillow, has been one of the loudest supporters of former President Trump and recently produced a documentary attempting to prove that the results of the 2020 Presidential election were fraudulent.

In my opinion, none of this is good for us as a nation. On our coins is printed the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. Today we are fractured so badly that I’m not sure this statement is valid any longer.

To be clear, I am not saying voting with your dollars is not your right or even your responsibility. I believe strongly that you should not give your hard-earned dollars to companies whose products or services directly violate your personal moral code. As Ron Finke explained in last week’s article, we provide clients with the ability to keep certain companies or industries out of their investment portfolios for this very reason. But there is a big difference between that and demanding that the manufacturer of your favorite fabric softener brand agrees with your views on immigration reform or gun control.

Only time will tell if this new type of marketing strategy will work or not. Honestly, I hope these tactics are soundly rejected and we can go back to a less divided America.

(Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The advice is general in nature and not intended for specific situations.)            

Luke Davis is the director of operations and compliance at Stewardship Capital in Independence.