Consumer Mistrust of Politics Spills Over to Brands

Leading Marketers, Sensing the Shift, Are Playing It Safe

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
There's got to be research out there somewhere showing that brand loyalty and political loyalty have the capacity to unravel at the same rate. It would go a long way in explaining today's cautious and lackluster advertising environment.

With all that's going on, you could easily build a case that these are not the best of times for brand building -- and they're the perfect storm for brand teardowns.

I submit that the same kind of raucous political discourse that has driven Democrats and Republicans further and further apart has the capacity to erode brand loyalty across a wide spectrum of products. Angry voters are the same people as angry consumers, and their allegiance is under intense strain.

The political landscape has never been strewn with such vitriol. Can you imagine the ugliness emanating from the midterm elections in November, especially with the Democrats in such weakened condition and the Tea Party-ers so apoplectic about President Obama's alleged subterfuges?

And another question: Are people who feel the government is acting unfairly when it makes backroom deals to sway the passage of health-care legislation the most likely to react when they perceive that consumer product companies are also trying to sell them a bill of goods?

Will the deterioration of political loyalty affect brand loyalty?

The credibility and trust in our institutions -- government as well as business -- continues to erode, but research shows that trust is a key component of advertising acceptance. And traditional media doesn't seem to be cutting it in the trust department.

Marketers have discovered that trust can be built on an edifice of doing good. More than half of the 6,000 consumers surveyed in Edelman's Goodpurpose study said that even in the throes of a recession they'd be prepared to pay more for a brand if it supported a good cause. And U.S. consumers were twice as likely to find it "very appropriate" for a brand to use its marketing dollars to fund sound causes (35%) vs. entertaining campaigns (16%) or brand sponsorships (15%).

Big advertisers like Coke and Pepsi have tried mightily to entertain us over the past few years, but have pretty much laid an egg. And Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have bigger fish to fry now. They're both buying their major bottlers, so the companies will be concentrating on squeezing distribution efficiencies from their acquisitions.

What is painfully obvious is that Coke and Pepsi have run out of entertaining ideas, and rather than embarrass us and themselves with another round of ill-fitting slogans, they are hiding out in cyberspace, where social media can allow their customers to do the talking by choosing worthwhile civic projects.

The drive to become bigger is also having a negative impact on advertising. Corporations, as I said in a recent column, have a powerful incentive to reach the "too big to fail" status "so that no matter how badly they screw up, the government will save their bacon."

Have you noticed a marked deterioration of Anheuser-Busch's advertising since the company was acquired by InBev? "Drinkability" sure doesn't replace "Whaassup" in the annals of great beer advertising.

Maybe marketers are using the fractious and fickle consumer-as-voter dilemma as an excuse to play it safe.

About the only one who seems to be seeking out controversy these days is Burger King. That's because the company doesn't need to worry about alienating its constituents -- its target audience of young men can't or doesn't vote anyway.

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