Trump and the role of brands in political protest

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 2 February 2017

The list of brands stepping forward to oppose, or voice their concerns over President Trump’s policies is growing. It’s being seen as an opportunity for brands to take a stand for what they believe in and the values they hold. But is a political protest the right place for brands?

Tech companies Microsoft, Amazon and Expedia are among those taking the 'Muslim ban' to court, on the grounds that the executive order halting immigration is unconstitutional.

Many of the world's largest brands including Nike, Starbucks, Google, Dove and Airbnb have now made internal, and external, statements about their position on Trump’s immigration moves, and others have turned their views into ad campaigns.

Industry holding companies WPP, IPG and Omnicom have all made statements. Sir Martin Sorrell said he has an "instinctive dislike" for the immigration ban.

Apple, Tinder and Twitter have been vocal about how they would not exist without the skills and expertise of immigrants. Airbnb has offered free housing to refugees affected, Starbucks and Google have pledged to hire thousands of refugees around the world. Nike CEO Mark Parker says its values are being threatened. Protests have taken to the streets and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is also pursuing legal action against Trump's immigration order, has received US$24 million in donations over the past week – that's six times more than it usually receives in a year.

Dove's British ads over the weekend clearly take a stand in response to Trump's “alternative facts' and Budweiser's latest ad, although a while in the making, has launched at a timely moment.

It follows the journey of the beer brand's founder – a German immigrant – going to America to make his dreams come true. The beer, which temporarily rebranded as 'America' late last year as part of a campaign, is enjoyed by millions of Americans and contributes millions of dollars to the US economy. Bud Light is the most popular beer in the US, while Budweiser is the fourth, according to Statista.

Public emotion is running high, but should a brand's be too? It's complex, but it comes down to internal branding, culture and employee engagement. These tech firms issued statements to reassure their own people that they care and are taking action. That internal action then flows through to an external brand perception and consumers see the brands they use and buy doing something that resonates.

Brands must be political
Cummins&Partners executive creative director Julian Schreiber says brands don't really have a choice in whether to be involved in protest now - as people are increasingly buying things based on what aligns with their own social values. While it's more important than ever for brands to work out and declare what they stand for, he urges some caution.

“A brand can get involved in politics, but it’s a risk as people can care deeply about political issues. Brands can make it seem like they’re taking the issue lightly. You’ve got to read the room, so to speak, judge the climate and how the brand’s involvement will be taken. It’s pretty hard to make it seem like you’re not just attention seeking,” he says.

Colin Jowell partner at independent agency UDKU, agrees that brands now don't really have a choice about getting political.

“This is neither the first or last time that a brand will be drawn into politics. Just last year Telstra was forced by consumer backlash to reinstate its support for marriage equality. The truth is it never actually withdrew its support in the first place. It was just trying to get out of the fray but customers didn't appreciate that,” he says.

“What they learned was: brands will get dragged into political debates, whether they like it or not, so it's probably smarter to get in touch with their audience, understand what matters to them, and be on the front foot with their support. So long as it's done from a place of authenticity, it will work. Nobody won anything by sitting on the fence.”

Permission to protest
Dove's latest ads in the UK jumped on 'alternative facts' with print ads that link it to real facts and tied it in with Dove's decade long purpose-driven positioning around real facts and natural beauty.

Dove is a brand that reads the zeitgeist, says Samantha Allen, MD of Human, a Sydney based agency that specialises in specialise in internal branding and employee culture. It has the permission but if it is seen as a “mercenary tactic” for a brand to be speaking on the subject, consumers will see though it she says.

Gavin Levinsohn, CEO of Marcel Sydney, says consumers are increasingly buying into the ethics and points of views of brands and the organisations that produce them so there is a role for brands in political protests. It's wrapped up in marketing and brands with purpose, and he agrees it comes back to permission.

“Add to this that social media has required brands to be current and conversational, and the conversation of the moment is the tectonic changes in politics, media and society,” he says.

“They should get involved is if the brand’s ideology or point of view lines up with a political point of view or in protest to that point of view. Certain brands – Nike, Virgin, Dove, Patagonia, MAC makeup and others - by way of how they’ve conducted their business and how they’ve communicated their intent - have earned  permission from their audience or users to take a broader views than other brands. I would argue their consumers reward them for it. I believe Dove’s work over the past 15 years or so has bought them the ‘permission’ to take stronger points of view and do this ad.”

However, while he thinks politics is OK ground for brands, he thinks faith and religion should be avoided. Most experts agree not all brands should be diving into the political fray. Using something as sensitive and incendiary as Trump's 'alternative facts' to sell products won't go down well in some camps. Not all brands will have 'permission' to comment on issues such as political controversy. For some, doing so will be out of touch with their history and ideology, says Levinshon, which makes it “inappropriate at best and offensive at worst”.

“If there is a false economy in it then it’s wrong, and consumers will ultimately vote with their wallets. Tone is also important here. If a brand belittles or trivialises something important, then that is a mistake. Some may say the mere act of attaching a brand or advertising trivialises an issue, but I think that’s too sweeping a statement, it depends on the nature of the branding and advertising,” says Levinsohn. 

Cummins&Partners Schreiber agrees. “Brand citizenship is growing and people like to express their opinions with their wallets. This is both a social and a commercial opportunity if you get it right but it might sound harsh, but really, a brand should only get involved if its builds their value otherwise it could look like it's just trying to cash in on the moment.

“If there is a connection to the cause in some way, like a food brand that’s associated with Mexico, for example, protesting the wall, then it could amplify the protest sentiment of their target audience and build its value with them - that makes sense.”

Not everyone agrees that Dove's campaign hits the mark. Saatchi & Saatchi associate creative director Flavio Fonseca believes it's a case of a brand trying to be relevant by picking a trendy hashtag and running with it without thinking about it’s relevance to their consumers.

“This specific Dove ad is a classic case of a brand trying to be relevant by picking a trendy hashtag and running with it without thinking about it’s relevance to their consumers. It may show that Dove understands the topical trends but it doesn’t really take a stab at the topic. It’s wallpaper at it’s best. Not memorable or relevant," he says. 

“But, if brands do it, they should really look into the relevance of the topic from the perspective of their audience and construct a powerful message and point of view around it. Think of the classic Benetton 'Unhate' ads. It’s topical, political, educational, it’s about bringing people together and the message is pushing for world peace. Is it relevant to their audience? No doubt it is, it’s relevant to anyone. We all want peace! I want to wear it! It works.”

But, there is potential risk, and it comes back to how aligned to the brand's positioning the statement is.

Levinsohn says: “It certainly can backfire. The risk depends on the extent to which the brands involvement lines up with its audience’s point of view. I’d like to believe that a brand’s duty is to its audience and consumers. Serve them and the ‘brand’ will serve shareholders. Consumers will reward a brand when a political view lines up with the brand’s ideology, history and the substance of what it does.

“But that’s also not absolute, as an example I’m sure there will be some Dove consumers who buy into Dove’s ’natural beauty’, pro-women branding and yet be Trump supporters who are offended by the ad.” 

Leadership and internal branding

Simon Sinek, author and leadership expert, tells AdNews that while President Trump's isn't necessarily the example of what it means to be a leader, one good thing that has emerged is that it has forced leaders of global, and local, organisations and political parties to re-evaluate their own leadership.

“It brings the concept of leadership to the forefront. People are talking about what it means to be a leader more than ever and that is a good thing. Donald Trump was a vote against the establishment and it forces leaders top re-evaluate,” he tells AdNews.

“Being a brand is the same as the character or integrity of an individual … we judge each other on what we say," Sinek says.

"The internal company version is culture and the external version is brand. It's all character. You can't build a strong company culture just by putting in a few ping pong tables … authenticity is saying and doing the things you actually believe … it comes back to an internal thing. Customers will never love the brand intil the employees do and strong brands stand for something.”

Power and change
Allen, MD of Human, agrees.

“When the environment rises up and creates a challenge for leaders, it's a time to stand up and see if we are really, truly living our values. Are we living and breathing them or are they just something pasted up on the kitchen wall. We need to use these times to reflect and it's an opportunity for brands to stand up and show where their moral compass is. There is a lot of power within organisations to create change that we often forget,” she says.

“The best organisations are those that stand for something. They are the ones that people are attracted to. They top the best places to work and reputation indexes, they have better innovation and make greater leaps and bounds. Gone are the days when we will accept a gap between what we say internally and do externally.”

Schreiber and Fonseca agree with Allen that there is power within brands to effect change.

“Brands have very loud voices that can get PR around an issue if they play in this space, drawing attention to themselves and the issue, building energy around it. They just need to be relevant,” says Schreiber.

Fonseca adds: "What Uber, Apple, Google and Airbnb are doing may be quite political, but by making such statements openly and helping their workers in need, it brings the conversation to a more humanitarian level and sets the example. It shows that they care about these issues and they are taking it seriously. And that can be quite powerful statement for a brand to make.

“There may be backlashes, but brand or human, we all have to, at some point, take a step towards a better more peaceful and equal world.” 

Stephanie Small, senior strategist at Designworks, says in this age of growing political disillusionment, brands are stepping up to the plate “as the new purveyors of belief”.

"Consumers seek out brands who fight for the things they care about and it's the same in the workplace. It naturally follows that they would want to know what their employer stands for, and the beliefs that guide what they do.” She gave the example of a Hill & Knowlton study of MBA students which showed for three out of four students, corporate reputation plays an extremely or very important role when considering where to work after completing their MBA – and it's based on the values underpinning a business.

“A clear and meaningful employer brand is the linchpin to an engaged workforce. Of course it’s one thing to stand for something, it’s another thing to actively demonstrate it,” she says. What are your thoughts?

Back in 2016, before Trump was voted in, AdNews put creative agencies to the test and asked them to come up with the best fake ads for our mock brief "Whether it's pro-Trump or anti-Trump, sell the American dream in a post-Trump world."

Check out the creative resposnes here.


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