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.

The Power Of Creativity In PR

Some people don’t think of PR professionals as particularly creative – except when it comes to hatching wild PR stunts or gimmicks, like KFC’s fried-chicken-flavored nail polish. Yet creativity plays a part in much of a PR person’s daily work. They must constantly generate fresh concepts for bylines and story angles for pitching, as well as dreaming up campaign ideas for clients.

According to The Holmes Report’s Creativity in PR study, which surveys PR executives all over the world, 68% of PR agency respondents say their clients are more likely to approach the PR team for “big creative ideas” than in the past. There was also a significant increase in agencies who employ a formally named creative director, from 37% to 56%. Still, a prime impediment to PR teams’ showing out-of-the-box creative chops is clients’ aversion to risk– something not so prevalent in the advertising field.

In today’s atmosphere of continuous communications from a multitude of channels, PR people (and their marketing peers) must come up with original approaches to storytelling and content to break through the noise.

4 ways creative PR takes it up a notch

Creativity in PSAs helps make a tired message fresh

We’ve all seen 30-second PSAs on late-night TV that feature a talking head looking into the camera and telling you to adopt a dog, or talk to your children about drugs. The Canadian Ontario Association of Optometrists unveiled an eye-opening approach to getting a simple public service message to the public. To urge people to give their eyes periodic breaks from screens, it filmed a series of snappy, fun viral videos called 20 Second Daydreams.

This fresh packaging of a mundane personal health topic makes all the difference. The video series makes a point through entertaining content, as opposed to a routine “eat-your-veggies” message. Showing beats telling, but it takes more work.

Creativity helps express company values in a distinct brand voice

Advertisements for travel metasearch sites usually involve a cutesy gnome (Travelocity) or a charismatic spokesperson (Trivago). Instead of traditional ads, Danish travel site Momondo produced a short documentary about 67 people doing DNA tests to find out more about their ancestral origins. Does this have anything do with shopping for airfares? Only tangentially, but it’s effective.

Momondo links the documentary to a brand statement that differentiates it from competitors like Expedia. “Our vision is of a world where our differences are a source of inspiration and development, not intolerance and prejudice.” (Expedia’s vision statement is milquetoast in comparison.) Momondo’s creative endeavor was no small project; it involved a heavy lift of DNA tests, interviews, and filmmaking. Yet it started an important conversation by espousing its values through storytelling. Seventeen million views later, Momondo has taken a strong stand and conveyed it an entertaining way through creative content and PR.

A great idea aligns a company’s mission with its market

Intuit reinvented itself six years ago as a provider of services to small businesses. Its Small Business Big Game campaign was not only a contest for small business owners to win a Super Bowl ad, but a way for it to interact with and celebrate SMBs. The 17,000 participating owners had the opportunity to tell their stories and receive additional benefits through the program. The initiative was an inspired method of spreading awareness of the Intuit Quickbooks brand, and more importantly, to position the company as an advocate for small business owners. PR teams need to conceive inspiring ideas to communicate alignment with its audience.

Creative PR helps B2B brands be accessible

B2Bs must scramble to find creative ways to gain competitive advantage in crowded markets. One way is to offer the company’s more human face to the public. Capitalizing on the trend of B2B PR/marketing borrowing B2C tactics, a UK data security company opened up a pop-up retail store in 2017 in London where customers were required to pay for products with personal data from their mobile phones. The Data Dollar Store was a fun, experiential event that raised awareness about data privacy, thereby communicating the company’s purpose to the general public. The event, boasting a playful, performance art ambience, accurately reflected the company’s values (“supporting art, science, and sport”) and the overall brand vibe. A firm’s PR team must bring their best creative chops when envisioning a tactic that generates so much earned and shared media on such a modest budget.

Audacity can add authenticity

All four above examples have the elements of authenticity and audacity in common. Creativity is in itself PR currency, since it’s the x-factor that can boost the inherent value of any campaign tactic. Some say it cannot be taught, but we disagree. The more you exercise those creative muscles, the stronger they become. Creative concepts are by definition outliers, so they may take a leap of faith. Small steps lead to larger strides and big ideas.