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.

4 Ways PR Creates Brand Attachment

While top-tier marketing and advertising are valuable, associated PR campaigns can help propel a brand to the next level of emotional attachment. It’s that anticipation you get when you hear the three-note music intro before a Netflix movie or the warm recognition of a classic Mickey Mouse logo. You feel connected to these brands. They’ve become an enduring part of your life and are woven into enjoyable memories or happy experiences.

Some customers are initially attracted to certain brands because they like their ad message. Others are loyal because of a good experience with product quality or customer service. But sometimes the emotional connection between us and a brand is hard to define, and even harder to achieve. For companies looking to differentiate themselves from the pack, PR (integrated with advertising and marketing) can help build a foundation of brand love.

4 ways PR creates brand attachment

PR gives voice to brands

Especially in today’s atmosphere of increasing corporate activism, a company that takes a stand on a controversial topic can create lasting bonds with customers – even if it alienates others in the process. It is well documented that today’s rising generations value a company’s ethical stance and an authentic commitment to social responsibility. PR is a primary tool for corporate speech on social issues. In 2016, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook took a controversial stand (on its news site and in TV interviews) against the U.S. government when it refused to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. The shooter’s phone was ultimately cracked without Apple’s help, but its stand on privacy was consistent with long-held principles and arguably those of its core customers. Patagonia, a smaller, privately owned company, has earned a loyal customer base by making good products, but its communications has also played a big role in engaging consumers. The brand’s book publishing and filmmaking arms help convey its position on environmental issues that are also important to stakeholders and customers. When brands like these take a stand on social issues, they are humanized, making it easier for like-minded consumers to engage.

Storytelling brings brands to life

When a company tells the story of the human beings behind the corporate logo, it brings the company to life. But the storytelling should go beyond the founders and employees. A great PR initiative will allow its other stakeholders (like employees, customers and third-party influencers) to tell their stories. In the B2B sector, Salesforce excels at storytelling and has a team dedicated to it. Its website has a success stories page, with well-produced articles and videos featuring “trailblazers” – Salesforce users. CEO Marc Benioff’s outspoken leadership on the topic of management always goes hand in hand with the Salesforce story – making him an outstanding CEO brand evangelist. His storytelling prowess combined with his corporate activism makes it obvious why Salesforce is such a beloved B2B brand.

PR helps differentiate

People gravitate towards uniqueness. Customers cannot fall in love with just another face in the crowd. They fall for the disruptors like Apple and McDonald’s (back in the 50s, it was radical). Differentiation is key to gaining competitive advantage over crowded markets. In B2B, ads alone may not inspire the confidence a customer needs to make a high-priced decision in a long sales cycle. Third-party endorsements like consultant reviews, analyst reports, and executive bylines help to explicate a company’s unique attributes for the potential buyers.

But sometimes a company lacks a true differentiator when it comes to its product or service. With all things being equal, intangible attributes become a source of differentiation: values, ethos, management philosophy, corporate culture. Public relations programs are designed to bring such values into the public conversation. Certainly, Airbnb has gained separation from competitors like VRBO/Homeaway through its marketing/PR activations. REI’s “opt outside” campaign, in which it closed its stores on black Friday and urged people to go outside, was a compelling social activism campaign that in turn helped REI separate itself from other outdoor retailers.

PR helps fosters brand immersion

Marketing, advertising, and PR should work in combination when tying to take brands to the next level. Experiential marketing generates the kind of customer interaction that is key to attachment. When brands create immersive experiences that are so compelling and unusual, they earn media placements from the press, adding a whole other dimension to the marketing campaign. These activations allow customers to participate in the brand story, as well as capture and share unique and memorable experiences.

Netflix partnered with Lyft to create some mildly scary, but amazing experiences for Lyft customers in promotion of the second season of Stranger Things. Borrowing a page from Walt Disney’s playbook, the Lego Group, which was named #2 most reputable company in 2017, created LegoLand theme parks and a Legoland themed hotel. Airbnb opened a pop-up open house for four days in London as part of its 2016 “Live There” campaign. Over 1400 people ventured in to see how locals live. Not only did Airbnb give people fun and informative experiences, but the event incorporated its messaging — the resonant theme urging travelers to ‘live like locals.’

Companies not only create immersive experiences with events and attractions, but also with dialogue. Netflix frequently invites two-way conversation and participation of its customers, especially on social media. For its show Orange is the New Black, it created a photo-sharing app on which viewers could make their own show-related memes. Users get to feel as if they are in on the joke and in on the fun. Experiences are not easily forgotten, and they break the barrier between brand and customer. For more on experiential PR, see this PR Week article.

However, if substance does not back up a company’s storytelling, it’s unlikely to make customers fall in love. There must be a great story to tell; the commitment to values must be sincere and relevant; and the interaction must be honest. Whether for a mid-sized B2B or an early-stage consumer brand, a solid PR approach can build brand attachment as well as growth. See our earlier post for more on 7 PR tips for brands to woo customers.

Should Brands Take A Stand?

The common public relations wisdom about brands and politics is that they don’t mix. When an issue fuels consumer anger or public debate, it should be avoided at all costs. The bigger the brand, the more risk-averse the marketing team tends to be, with good reason.

But nowadays there’s pressure for brands to take a stand. The election of Donald Trump didn’t cause the culture wars, but it has hardened the polarized positions that already existed. There’s new energy on the left, resulting in a backlash among Trump supporters, which triggers more division, and so on. Like-minded people live in tribes, separated by geography, social media circles, and traditional media consumption. Some want to know that the brands they support share their views, and even their activism.

Just last month there was a storm of outrage over Megyn Kelly’s interview with conspiracy nut Alex Jones.  JP Morgan Chase pulled its advertising from NBC’s new show in advance to register its disapproval. The move echoed the ad boycott of Breitbart News last year as major brands left the site in droves over its “alt-right” content.

Even Shakespeare had his time in the barrel recently. New York’s Shakespeare in the Park is a longstanding cultural happening here, but this season the protagonist of its production of Julius Caesar looked very much like President Trump, and (spoiler alert!), because he’s assassinated by political rivals, critics saw a possible incitement to violence. Some advertisers lent their ears to the complaints as well. Bank of America pulled its sponsorship of The Public Theater after 11 years.  Following suit was Delta, which tweeted that the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”

Whether you agree or not, the above decisions were at the low end of the risk scale. Wading into a third-rail issue like immigration, abortion, or even climate change, can be far more perilous to a brand reputation. The research isn’t definitive, but most studies show that taking a stand amidst controversy does come with risk. A study by SSRS in collaboration with the 4A’s found that 58 percent of consumers dislike when brands get political. And that dislike may be more than just temporary. A YouGov survey suggests that that when consumers drop a brand due to bad PR, as many as two-thirds never return to it.

Yet there are major exceptions to the common wisdom that make a brand’s PR direction more challenging. Research also shows that younger people – Millennials and especially post-Millennial consumers – are far more likely to say that brands should take a political stand than, say, Baby Boomers. Since these younger segments are beloved by advertisers and are the future of so many brands, PRs and marketers are taking note.

So, when should a brand take a stand?

The answer depends on the brand. For those with a strong activist identity, the path is easier.  Take Patagonia, for example. For its brand, this “new normal” of weekend activism is probably a marketing opportunity. The company’s advocacy on environmental issues is a core value. Even for a less well-identified brand, a strong stand on a social or political matter could drive relevance by differentiating it. But for most mainstream products and companies, the decision to embrace politics – or a politicized issue – is fraught.
How should PRs navigate the new environment? Here are some guidelines to navigating the brand reputation waters when it comes to controversial positions.

Know your audience

When Trump signed the executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Airbnb jumped to oppose it. Not only did CEO Brian Chesky speak out against the order, but Airbnb went further by offering housing to stranded refugees. The position was fully consistent with the brand’s values and that of its customer base of sophisticated international travelers. Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard has slammed Trump over his decision to leave the Paris Accord, but given his history, brand-watchers would probably be more surprised if he were silent. No position or campaign will please everyone, but a brand should know if a position will run counter to the values of its “base.”

Explain the move honestly

One of the early victims of the polarization around Trump was the venerable L.L. Bean brand. After Trump tweeted thanks for the support of Linda Bean, granddaughter of the company’s founder, it set off a move to boycott Bean products. The company wisely kept a low-ish media profile but outlined its response to the protest in a statement posted on Facebook. It explained its company values (“inspiring people to live life outdoors”), summarized its community and philanthropic commitments, including environmental stewardship and education, and respectfully asked for critics to view Linda Bean as a single shareholder rather than a symbol of the brand. It largely worked to defuse the anger, because the connection was relatively tenuous, and because Bean articulated its non-position thoughtfully and well.

Consider internal audiences

JP Morgan Chase’s move to cancel ads supporting the Alex Jones interview was probably consistent with its overall corporate and customer values. CMO Kristin Lemkau tweeted, “As an advertiser, I’m repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes. Why?” Yet it may have been even more important internally. The decision strikes me as a decision made with the corporation’s 25,000 employees in mind. Maybe no one chose to move their business to Chase as a result of the stand, but it was probably a popular decision inside the company and a wise move by Lemkau.

Be consistent

When the heat is on, it may be tempting to retreat from an unpopular position, but a flip-flop can worsen the situation by angering a whole new tribe of consumers. It’s far better to weather the storm. NBC compounded its problems when it tried to stake out a middle ground by editing the Alex Jones interview to make it more harsh. That did nothing to defuse criticism from sponsors and viewers, and it angered Jones, who then released a full-length version of the interview online, preempting NBC’s own airing. By contrast, look at Nordstrom. As the #GrabYourWallet movement to drop Trump-branded fashion products gained steam, it was included in the boycott. After it began to (quietly) phase out the Ivanka Trump fashion line, it faced a backlash, culminating in a nasty tweet by the president himself. But it wisely stayed the course, releasing a diplomatically worded statement and hunkering down until the controversy waned.

Plan for a reaction

Every action spurs a reaction. A smart communicator will explain the decision to stakeholders and advocates, furnish talking points where appropriate, and work to control the message by staffing up on the customer response and social side of the business. The imperative here is that any and all consumer comments – pro and con – are heard and responded to with professionalism.
And if you think we’ve never been in more polarizing times, take heart. Dive into Ron Chernow’s Hamilton for a refresher on the incendiary political rhetoric of America’s early days (not to mention the duels!) And note that long before the current culture wars and Trump’s election, brands waded into controversy based on principle, not just PR. In 1992, for example, Levi’s stopped donating to the Boy Scouts of America over its refusal to accept gay members, sparking product boycotts. Right before Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, IBM was the first major corporation to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners in 1996. We may see marriage equality and gay rights as a “safe” issue today, but things were different 25 years ago. These and other brand positions taken against the grain are outlined in Eight Times Brands Got Political, an inspiring reminder that a principled stand is not only possible, but it can be good PR, too – over the long run.

Which Brands Are Winning The 2012 Election PR Race?

This election year has brought plenty of PR fodder, and not just for media and political pundits. As always, it offers opportunities for brand marketers and PR experts to jump into the race. Yet, election tie-ins are tricky, particularly during such a partisan time. Not all are winners. From bad to brilliant, here are some of brands who mixed marketing and politics in 2012.

It’s not the scoop it was in 2007, but Ben and Jerry’s came back earlier this year with its mission to “get the dough out” of politics. The ice cream maker dug deeper in 2012 when Stephen Colbert created his own Super PAC to make a point about election financing, and Ben and Jerry’s whipped up a special one-day giveaway of Colbert’s vanity flavor “AmeriCone Dream,” available, naturally, in a SUPERPACK. The result was a long-running campaign that drew attention to the issue through regular plugs by Colbert.

By contrast, there’s the cheesy stunt served up recently by Pizza Hut. This one tops the #fail list. Pizza Hut tried to capitalize on the October 16 town-hall presidential debate forum by announcing it would award free pies for life to anyone willing to embarrass himself by asking the presidential candidates which pizza they prefer – sausage or pepperoni. But after it was dished for trivializing the political process, it dropped the half-baked idea and ended up with a web promotion….and, admittedly, a big helping of publicity.

Cheetos followed with a survey that claims to predict that President Obama will retain his seat as “Commander in Cheese.” Bada-bum. Far more successful was Boston Market’s campaign to launch a new menu item by offering hungry customers the chance to declare themselves “left wing” or “right wing” by choosing either chicken or turkey. Boston Market’s “Bowl Poll” had legs, and media ate it up.
Election-year newsjacking isn’t limited to consumer brands. Leading email services provider (and client)

Silverpop analyzed the email marketing strategies used by the GOP candidates, and, later, the nominees from each party. The result was a lighthearted but strictly non-partisan infographic look at the campaigns that made Silverpop’s expertise relevant and even fun.

Halloween superstore Spirit showed a savvy side by offering up its Halloween mask sales as a forecast for the election’s outcome. It’s not the first time, but Spirit’s running on the fact that for the past 12 years, its best-selling candidate mask has spookily predicted who will win the election. And the story was picked up and shared just about everywhere. Sweet.

Over the summer, iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark made its mark with an ad and social media campaign themed around…what else, a cocktail party. It featured bantering political odd couple James Carville and Mary Matalin and may be my sentimental favorite because Maker’s Mark was a client many years ago. Or, it just might be because the idea of a cocktail is pretty appealing at this point during a long election year.

But my vote for the best election-year tie-in goes to JetBlue for its witty sendup of how exercised we get when it looks like our guy won’t prevail. Dubbed “Election Protection,” it offers the chance to win a free trip out of town if your candidate loses. Given how many times I’ve threatened to move to Canada when the polls take a bad turn, I feel this one will take off. The airline will give away 2,012 one-way seats — or 1,006 round trips — to destinations like Turks & Caicos, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Aruba, Barbados, or Bermuda. With no disrespect to Canada, I can now vie for a more exotic exile if things don’t turn out as I hope. Well played, JetBlue.

PR By Another Name: Public Relations and the "New" Competition

The chemistry was great, our experience perfect, and they loved the proposal. But, in a twist, the account went to a “digital brand management” shop whose website touts its ability to drive visibility and engagement.

PR by another name? The “creative destruction of PR“? It’s true that social media has changed the game for our business, and mostly in a good way. The blurring of the PR/marketing line is a gift for firms who understand the social Web.

But there’s a flipside. Just as we’re hungry for more of the social marketing pie, digital marketing firms, branding agencies, social media consultants, and others are eyeing it, too. Last year, a prospect told me he was placing funds earmarked for PR into SEO. He needs a quick fix, and he doesn’t think PR can provide it. And he’s right.

So, how can we benefit from the blurry line? Expansion is one way. Late last year Edelman announced Ruth, an in-house integrated marketing unit offering a laundry list of marketing services, from branding to mobile marketing. In my view, it’s tough for a company whose core business is PR to attract top talent in all non-core areas. But, a mega-firm needs to tap all budgets, and it’s probably a defensive move, too.

But short of being all things to all clients, we should look at how the need is articulated…or how we can frame it. As a marketing PR person for so many years, I fall squarely into that camp in the debate over where PR belongs. But for marketing issues, PR is rarely the sole answer, and our strategy has to fit into the larger picture. The typical PR program isn’t designed for quick (and often, temporary) demand generation.

But where reputation is an issue, we tend to come out on top. Last month, we won an online assignment as the sole PR contender in a field of digital marketing firms. One reason was in how we sized up the issue together. Not as a purely online threat subject to SEO “dark arts” or social media magic. We discussed it as a critical and long-term reputation issue, best addressed through “education” (read: PR.) The client agreed.

So, maybe it’s a wash. But, I’m convinced that PR remains the most flexible, credible, and powerful tool for most communications issues, so I’m keeping tabs on the one that got away.