Marketers: Yes, You Can, but Maybe You Shouldn't

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

While it's undoubtedly smart marketing to ride the Barack Obama wave, marketers need to be careful not to get dashed upon the rocks. Attaching your brand to cultural high points is smart marketing; mistaking your brand for a politician or community organizer isn't.

In recent weeks, a number of marketers have unveiled campaigns that look strikingly like messaging left over from the president's campaign run. A number of media outlets have focused on this, wondering if there could be a backlash, perhaps in the form of outraged John McCain supporters. Such musing misses the point.

As marketers and advertisers, one of your jobs is to tie into the cultural zeitgeist. Hope and change -- vague as those notions are -- are the words of the day. Marketers looking to tap into that would be foolish not to try a little Obama-type messaging -- especially if you can cover your rear by insisting with a straight face that you're doing no such thing. You tap into the goodwill of Obama supporters and you have plausible deniability with McCain supporters. Besides, a little risk is always welcome in marketing.

The problem is when the purveyors of soda or coffee or breakfast cereals cross the line into actually acting like politicians, calling on their customers to get more involved or suggesting they do community service. That's fine for Barack Obama -- even expected.

But when a consumer wants a soda, he wants a soda. He doesn't want to feel guilty because the brand messaging is suggesting he's not doing his part. As we discussed last week, plenty of smart marketers are taking a positive tack, making consumers feel good and preaching optimism. But just because your actors are smiling, your soundtrack is uplifting and your colors are bright doesn't mean you should be laying a guilt trip on consumers.

We don't want to sound like cynical old-school capitalists. Calls to community service and greater civic involvement may be a good fit for many brands -- and even then usually best left to outreach programs, event marketing and below-the-line efforts. For most marketers, brand messaging should be about what the brand can do for the consumer -- not what the consumer can do for his country.

Such audacity may go unrewarded by consumers. If that happens, sales fall. And, like it or not, you're in the business of sales and profitability -- not community organizing.

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