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wrapped in the flag

By Published on .

Coca-Cola has said farewell — at least for now — to its “Life Tastes Good� campaign. Immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, the soft-drink maker pulled all its television advertising. Two weeks later, a quieter, almost melancholic commercial debuted, featuring soft-focus footage of newly retired baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr., walking off the field with his daughter. The commercial ends with a Coke logo, but no tag line. Life just doesn't taste so good anymore.

Coca-Cola spokesman Robert Baskin says the shift in message was “a gut decision,� since “sensitivities have changed.� Coke was caught in the same bind that constricts many of the advertisers these days, especially those as iconic as the beverage industry leader: how to touch on Americans' newly reawakened patriotism to promote their products, without seeming to exploit a national crisis.

General Motors, another all-American brand, chose a more direct response. Its new campaign, which premiered Sept. 20, features spots playing on a desire to rebuild and show strength. “Now it's time to move forward,� the voice-over exhorts, while touting a new low-interest-rate promotion. “For years, the auto industry has played a crucial role in our economy,� the ad states, “General Motors takes that responsibility seriously.�

As noble as the ad sounded, GM took heat for being opportunistic when it was first aired. “Striking the right patriotic chord now, requires the excruciatingly delicate touch of a maestro,� says Marie Elwood, president of Minneapolis-based consulting firm Avalaunche. “Even then, the note you hit may send a reverberating screech across your product or service. If consumers suspect that you are trying to manipulate them for financial gain during a time of national tragedy, not only will they shun your brand in the short term, they will likely eschew you in the long term as well.�

Stephani Cook, director of leadership strategy at D'Arcy, an ad agency in New York City, suggests applying a three-part test to all advertising that aims to respond to the current crisis: “First, does it say something helpful? Does it say what you're doing to help? Does it say what others can do to help?� If the ad misses one of the three, some may find it off-pitch, she says.

Part of the challenge is figuring out how deep the new patriotism runs, how long it will last and how tolerant Americans will be of having this lofty feeling linked to consumer products. Polls clearly indicate that patriotism is on the rise. According to the Gallup Organization, Americans' satisfaction with the country's overall direction has skyrocketed since the attacks, from 43 percent approval in a poll taken Sept. 7 through 10 to 67 percent in one conducted Oct. 10 to 11 — the highest rating since the period before the dot-com drop of January 2000. Approval of governmental institutions shot up as well. In a Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll, Sept. 20 to 21, President Bush's approval rating rose from 51 percent in polls taken just prior to the attacks to a record 90 percent afterward. Approval of Congress leapt from 42 percent in early September to 84 percent by mid-October, by far the highest rating that Gallup has ever recorded.

Naturally, many national brands will be eager to incorporate this patriotic surge into their marketing strategy in some way. Avalaunche's Elwood urges them to proceed with caution. “Given the fierce patriotism that has swelled up across the country, many companies will be tempted to ride the tsunami of national sentiment by blatantly and unabashedly promoting themselves as American businesses or as American brands,� she says. But this approach runs the risk of blurring brand differentiation, she warns.

Still, according to an exclusive American Demographics poll on the role of patriotism in branding, conducted by Ipsos-Reid, consumers overwhelmingly agree that “Made in America� matters these days. In the poll of 1,000 adults nationwide, conducted Oct. 5 to 7, 41 percent say businesses should make a point of labeling American-made goods “a great deal,� while 24 percent say “quite a bit.� Only 6 percent said companies should not make labeling a priority at all.

Fortunately, there may be a middle ground. Elwood recommends companies use “a quieter approach that is respectful to both their consumers and their country.� The most direct way to score points is for companies to let the public know that they are contributing to the relief effort, she says.

Indeed, in the first wave of corporate response, companies donated money or goods and services in kind. Those were acts by the corporate entities, usually not associated with individual brands. Clear Channel Communication's radio stations asked people to donate to a company-run relief fund. Tyson Foods gave food to rescue workers. Pep Boys contributed car parts, and Amazon.com offered its payment system to streamline financial giving.

Americans clearly approve. The American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid poll shows that 58 percent believe companies should continue to contribute what they can to the national effort, and 58 percent think businesses should focus either “a great deal� or “quite a bit� on devoting company time, money and expertise to the war on terrorism. Only 14 percent say businesses should help the war effort “very little� or “not at all.�

When it comes to bringing that spirit from the corporate to the brand level, however, matters get trickier. Consumers are not as supportive of companies that use patriotic themes in their advertising. A slight majority (52 percent) agree that businesses ought to contribute to the spirit of patriotism through their advertisements.

Those numbers highlight the fine line that companies must walk. Says Jim Crimmins, chief strategic officer for DDB Chicago: “One question to ask yourself on a regular basis is, ‘Do I continue to be a sensitive brand?’�

how do patriotism and business mix?

Sixty-five percent of respondents to American Demographics' exclusive survey thought that businesses should focus on labeling products that are made in America.

How much should businesses focus on making it clear which products they sell are made in America?*
A great deal or quite a bit 65% 59% 70% 55% 65% 76% 66% 71% 58% 72% 68% 53% 67% 57%
Very little or not at all 15% 19% 11% 21% 13% 10% 15% 10% 18% 15% 14% 15% 14% 22%
How much should businesses focus on devoting company time, money and expertise to the war on terrorism?*
A great deal or quite a bit 58% 54% 61% 66% 51% 58% 62% 59% 53% 65% 56% 51% 58% 58%
Very little or not at all 14% 15% 13% 11% 16% 14% 11% 13% 16% 14% 12% 17% 15% 11%
How much should businesses focus on contributing to the spirit of patriotism in their advertisements?*
A great deal or quite a bit 52% 48% 55% 50% 46% 60% 55% 55% 45% 60% 53% 40% 51% 52%
Very little or not at all 16% 21% 11% 14% 18% 15% 15% 14% 18% 15% 12% 22% 15% 17%
*Numbers do not sum to 100 because not all answers are shown. Source: American Demographics/lpsos-Reid
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