The Perils Of Patriotic PR And Marketing

Scanning the annual Brand Keys list of 50 Most Patriotic Brands in America, you might get the idea that America is synonymous with fast food, fast cars, whiskey, and blue jeans. Who can argue with that? Yet it’s one thing for a brand to have earned an association with all things USA, but another for it to be pandering to patriotism in hopes of riding a red, white, and blue wave. To complicate matters, the polarized political environment has made it more challenging for brand marketers to hit the right notes when it comes to national pride.
Here are some brand marketing/PR campaigns that prominently feature American iconography… for better or worse.

PBR Stays Woke

Pabst Blue Ribbon has a progressive interpretation of independence in its “American Dreaming” campaign, which is co-produced with Vice News. A pair of six-minute documentaries features the first-person narratives of a group of Americans that includes the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, a drag queen, Latinx, and others – all meant to express that “the most diverse generation in American history is redefining the American Dream.” Patriotic PR campaigns The videos emphasize the themes of freedom and opportunity while using patriotic imagery like uniformed service members, western landscapes, and a nightclub rendering of the Star Spangled Banner. Unlike Budweiser’s recent “America” beer campaign, PBR’s resonates. And there’s a PR twist; the brand invites people to call in to share their own American Dream experience. The videos are well produced and offer a powerful take on a very inclusive patriotism that clearly targets Millennials.

Hardee’s tastes like America?

Hardee’s has a different take. In April, it launched its Tastes Like America campaign as part of a rebranding effort. A one-minute video evokes summer in the heartland, with pleasing images of trucks and farms under a (terrible) soundtrack that mashes R&B with country vocals. The ad doesn’t address issues like freedom and opportunity like the PBR campaign, but it’s a soft sell that links the brand with classic American pastimes like fun with friends and gleeful consumption of fast food, of course. The brand is clearly using patriotism to sell burgers, but unlike the PBR campaign, it doesn’t feature much diversity and there’s no real message beyond enjoyment. The jury is out on this one, but it’s fun.

You can’t spell sausage without USA!

Another comfort food company, Johnsonville, has established itself as a light-hearted, accessible brand with humorous “member commercials” campaign – a conceit in which TV spots are conceived by customers. This summer, Johnsonville has partnered with the American Cornhole League (ACL) – yes, you read that right – as part of its “You can’t spell sausage without USA” campaign. The aggressive PR program involves the ACL sponsorship, a 12-minute documentary “A Bratwurst Story”, a limited time Firecracker Brat offering, a “Made in the USA” TV spot, and t-shirts for sale on the website. It’s a quirky campaign light on sentimentality and large on humor, and it works.

patriotic PR campaign

Harley Davidson’s #FreedomMachine
patriotic PR campaign
Burgers, beer, and sausages are foods we may consume proudly, but linking them to “freedoms” can be a stretch. One brand that more naturally represents American independence is Harley Davidson. Harley’s alignment with American ideals stems from the idea that its bikes are the very vehicles of freedom, or at least mobility.
Harley is currently running a campaign called #FreedomMachine along with a cool music video touting the brand. Additionally, it’s offering special discounted riding lessons for military and first responders — a nice touch. To Harley’s credit, the video and the website make spare use of the flag, and the only overtly patriotic image is a bald eagle. The brand’s American flavor feels more authentic than the others, since its messages of freedom rise above lip service.

Unfortunately for Harley, its current marketing campaign is being overtaken by a very public dispute with President Trump. After a tweet calling the president a “moron” was falsely attributed to CEO Matthew Levatich, Levatich responded on Twitter in dignified fashion, debunking the fake post. Apart from that, the Harley PR team has been quiet as Trump lashes out. He has repeatedly blasted its decision to move some production overseas in response to retaliatory tariffs by the EU. Presumably Harley has too many real business problems to escalate the war of words — or tweets — and has wisely opted to take the high road.

Brands like PBR and Harley Davidson can market national pride because they are iconic and have been linked to American culture for years. For Hardee’s and Johnsonville, the link is less intuitive. A campaign that oversteps, like the Dodge Ram Super Bowl TV spot that used Reverend Martin Luther King’s words as a voiceover, will experience a media and public backlash. When wrapping your brand in the flag, it’s best to make sure the link is a strong one, and that it whispers rather than shouts.

A PR Trend: The Corporate CEO As Social Advocate

We’re living in divided times, and no PR professional is immune. If it weren’t for historical reminders, like those Hamilton-era honor duels, you’d think our culture is more splintered than ever. Part of what hinders communicators are changes in the news media. The media that once united us has fragmented into highly curated content feeds that mostly reinforce what we already believe. Post-election, the press is derided as “fake news” by some who don’t like the message, and there’s plenty of “real” fake news in our social streams.

Whom do we trust?

Fewer than half of adults say they trust organized religion. Approval of Congress is near an all-time low, and civic engagement has declined. Even science has been politicized and met with greater skepticism than in the past. According to Gallup research on trust in U.S. institutions over the past 40 years, only the military is a clear winner. American confidence in the defense and military industry shows a significant rise, up 15 percentage points since 1973.

Meanwhile, the culture of celebrity still thrives — just look at the current occupant of the White House. And consider the role Jimmy Kimmel played during the latest divisive and very complicated national debate over healthcare. Kimmel seemed to break through where politicians and pundits couldn’t.

Yet in the Trump era, there’s another sector that may have a unique opportunity to step into the breach — the business community, and those who help CEOs communicate.

Big business steps up

Before you laugh, think about the past two years. Certainly the public is cynical about business, particularly certain industries like pharma, banking, and the tech industry as epitomized by Silicon Valley. But in times of chaos, we are seeing established corporations, led by CEOs, become powerful advocates for those who lack a voice.

Big business is in a position to offer a form of civic and social leadership that is very scare in our government or other institutions. And the public relations professionals who serve them can play a role in shaping advocacy campaigns.

Earlier this year business leaders began to speak out as never before on highly politicized issues like climate change, immigration, and LGBTQ rights. We’ve seen the power of corporate advocacy in the controversy over multiple state “bathroom bills” in 2016 and earlier this year, when countless CEOs joined the chorus against legislation that many saw as discriminatory and that they found – if nothing else – bad for business.

Post-election, many businesses mounted a similarly vocal response to the first of the president’s travel bans. Led by technology giants like Google and Apple, more than 100 businesses joined the legal fight against the executive order. Many issued statements supporting sensible immigration and pledged help for those affected by the proposed ban. But events in Charlottesville brought a tipping point. The president’s shambolic reaction to the white nationalist march drew a fierce response that went well beyond political pundits. His remarks spurred rebukes by major business executives like Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who resigned from the presidential council on American manufacturing. “Dump Trump” moves by Under Armour, Intel, and even Walmart followed, as well as public rebukes from many more CEOs.

What’s significant is that the CEOs speaking out aren’t just the usual suspects … the indie brands with loyal followings, like Method, Tom’s Shoes, or even Starbucks. The new brand advocacy leaders are just as likely to be large corporations that aren’t particularly known for advocacy beyond their own interests. This is Big Business with a capital “B.”

Public opinion is mixed on how and why a brand should “take a stand,” but the pressure is growing―along with the opportunity. Look at Tanaya Macheel’s story, “The House Jamie Built: How J.P.  Morgan Chase Became the Industry’s Conscience” in Digiday last month. What category is more loathed than banking? Yet Chase has become “the industry’s conscience”― hyperbolic, maybe, but a template for many similar businesses. Explains Brandwatch’s Kellyn Terry, “The presidential election changed the landscape of social media permanently and majorly. Instead of talking about who’s wearing what designer and meme sharing, people began to need to know who’s on what side of the political divide.”

Brand advocacy has never happened like it’s happening now. And it could be that these pragmatic, profit-driven CEOs are best suited to exert the missing “moderating influence” on the president and his allies — with help from skilled communicators.

Next up — How the most skilled corporate CEOs have embraced advocacy.