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All Brands Are Politicians

By - October 29, 2010

Obama-kissing-a-baby.jpg(image) Recently I was watching television with my wife, a baseball game if memory serves, when an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a regional restaurant chain (not a national one like Jack in the Box). The ad was pretty standard fare – a call to action (go now!) and a clear value proposition: the amazing amount of tasty-looking food you could have for a bargain price. I can’t find the ad online, but there’s no dearth of similar spots on television – in fact, their plentitude is why the commercial caught my attention in the first place.

In short, the ad offered pretty much all you could eat pasta, fries, and burgers for something like six bucks. Nearly all the food portrayed was processed, fried, and sourced from factory farms – necessarily so, as it’d simply not be possible to offer such a deal were it not for the economies of scale inherent in the US food economy. It’s simple capitalism at work: The chain is taking advantage of our nation’s subsidization of cheap calories to deliver what amounts to an extraordinary bargain to a consumer – all you can eat for less than an hour’s minimum wage!

It’s entirely predictable that such an offering would be in market. What’s not predictable, until recently, is how marketing such an offer might backfire in the coming age of marketing transparency and political unrest.

Allow me to try to explain.

As I watched the ad, and considered how many similar ones I see on a regular basis, I got to thinking about who the chain was targeting.

Certainly the chain wasn’t targeting me. I’m one of the so-called elites living in a bubble – I try to eat only organic foods, grown locally or sustainably if possible. I do this because I believe these foods are healthier for me and better for the world. I know I am in the extreme minority when it comes to my food – in the main because I can afford the prices they command. (And sure, I love hitting a burger joint every so often as a treat, but I also know that the act of considering fast food chains a “treat” is a privilege – I don’t have to rely on those outlets for my main source of sustenance.)

So no, that television ad was most certainly not targeted to me. I’d actually never even heard of the chain (nor had I seen its restaurants near where I live or travel). In short, that chain was wasting its marketing dollars on me, and most likely on a lot of other folks like me who happen to like watching baseball.

So what audience was that chain trying to reach? Experts in food marketing will tell you that the QSR industry is obsessed with reaching young men (and young men do watch baseball). But as I watched that ad, I started to think about another cohort that would clearly be influenced by the ads.

And that “target?” Intentionally or not (most likely not), it struck me that the advertisement would certainly appeal to our nation’s poor, as well as to those in our country who have eating issues, quite often the same folks, from what I read. One in seven people in the US are officially poor (and that bar is pretty damn low – $22K a year or less for a family of four). Nearly one in three are categorized as “obese.” And these two trends have become a seedbed for what are becoming the most politically sensitive issues of our generation: healthcare, wealth distribution, and energy policy. (The link between energy policy and food is expanded upon here).

Now, what happens when marketers like the all-you-can-eat chain, who like most marketers are not spending their money efficiently on TV, start buying data-driven audiences over highly efficient digital platforms? When and if we get to the nirvana that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Blue Kai, Cadreon, and countless others are pushing at the moment – a perfect world of matching marketers dollars to audience data and increased foot traffic in-store – we’ll be able to discern quite directly who a marketer is influencing.

And while that restaurant chain’s goal might be to influence young men, what happens if the digital advertising ecosystem proves directly that the folks who are responding are deeply effected by what has become a hot potato national issue around food, energy, and health?

And what happens when digital activists reverse engineer that marketing data, and use it as political fodder for issue-based activism? As far as I am concerned, the question isn’t if this is going to happen, the question is when.

Wait a minute, you might protest (if you are a marketer). What about privacy!! Ah, there’s the rub. Today’s privacy conversation is all about the consumer, about protecting the consumer from obtrusive targeting, and informing that consumer how, when, and why he or she is being targeted.

But that same data, which I agree the consumer has a right to access, can be re-aggregated by intelligent services (or industrious journalists using willing consumer sources), and then interpreted in any number of ways. And don’t think it’s just anti-corporate lefties and green freaks who will be making noise, in my research for this article, I found tons of articles on Tea Party sites decrying federal food subsidies. In short, the data genie is out of the bottle, not just for consumers, but for marketers as well.

Get ready, marketers, to be judged in the public square on your previously private marketing practices – because within the ecosystem our industry is rapidly building, the data will out.

I’m not picking on the food industry here, rather I’m simply using it as a narrative example. Increasingly, a company’s marketing practices will become transparent to its customers, partners, competitors, and detractors. And how one practices that marketing will be judged in real time, in a political dialog that defines the value of that brand in the world.

This new reality will force brands to develop a point of view on major issues of the day – and that ain’t an easy thing for brands to do – at least not at present. I’ve written extensively about how brands must become publishers. I’ve now come to the conclusion that they must also become politicians as well. Brands will have to play to their base, cater to interest groups, and answer for their “votes” – how their marketing dollars are spent.

I’d wager that marketers who get in front of this trend and shows leadership on the big issues will be huge winners. What do you think?


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7 thoughts on “All Brands Are Politicians

  1. not-so-elite says:

    Elites are selfish.

    John, yeah organic food may be good or may not be for your body, but it surely is not good for the environment.

    You know why organic food costs more? Because it requires more resources. If the entire planet has to eat organic food, we either would have to cut all the forests or define poor as somebody who can’t even get food. Forget about unhealthy fried food.

    Also do you know what is one of the most important factor affecting our enironment? Inefficient use of land. Because when land is used inefficiently, trees are cut.

    So just like government cares about miles per gallon, there should be minimum requirement on efficient use of land. But not, because you elite would not allow it. An apple organic or not tastes the same, but you taste not only for your tongue but also for your elitism.

    If you care about environment, care about poor, and the world, stop eating organic food. Eat local, since it saves energy. But demand your local farmer to produce as much food as possible. More food they grow, less needs to be transported.

    Simple math: If you anyway want to eat organic, eat organic food from far away land. It will require less energy to tranpost organic food to satisfy the elitism, and grow as much inorganic food locally to satisfy hunger.

  2. Jan Simmonds says:

    Excellent piece John thank you. This is one of many reasons why I have been advocating for several years that brands engaging at crowd level with social media are creating the monster that eats them. Brands, whether they be physical products or celebrities etc. are aspirational and need to stand out from the crowd, or the position of authority or respect necessary to achieve the above will not carry the weight they require. We’ve already seen several high profile cases of brands diluted by engagement (Coca Cola, Gap, Woolworths etc.) and I suspect this is just the beginning. I agree of course with the increasing responsibilities too, but it’s rather like a teacher wearing the same clothes as their students and talking the way they do, it just doesn’t reinforce aspiration or encourage respect for their knowledge.

    FMCG products can get away with some level of engagement because they can offer POS offers and use sm to give the impression of benefit, but let’s not get blinded by those successes to justify a lemming like journey into the abyss.

  3. Andy Havens says:

    Not sure I agree with you. Even if an advertiser did something egregious in terms of segmenting/targeting a specific group for a product, I doubt people would get up in arms about it. Most people think that advertising doesn’t affect them personally and specifically. We all think we’re too smart for it. We’re all wrong, of course, but I can think of very few cases where people would get mad because they were part of a group that was targeted “inappropriately” using a data-driven model.

    In some ways, we’re more flattered than afraid when we get marketed to. It’s attention, and we like attention.

    Plus, this has already been happening for years (see credit cards and credit scores), and nobody is doing much about it. We just elected a bunch of R’s who are going to insist on weaker financial protection and consumer banking oversite, too. So… you’ll have to wait two years for anyone to officially care about this, and, even then…

  4. rachel says:

    Andy Havens says is true, I agree Andy Havens, this has been going very long. and it was not possible this soon changed. in the grouping of the targets we do not restrict it too.

    some of them had been willing to pay more for it. the most important thing for me in promoting namely in terms of quality rather than quantity.

  5. Willemarck says:

    Thank you John. I think you’re right and some of the above comments forget that on average , 5% of the people dare to express themselves but the 95% left just enjoy reading what they say. And That givres a lot of power to activists and lead users through word of mouse. Therefor, I agree with you, brands cannot escape engagement. What they need more than ever is what politicians need too: a program and an ideology. And at the core of the ideology there is the word idea. Too many brands live or survive around while failing to get their brand associate with their reason of being. Often because they have simply no idea of what they want To stand for. They’re copycats lost In the red ocean. Social Media will help corporations and brands delivering Sense besides the product or services. Forporations is the future od corporation as Umair Haque claims. No?

  6. Your article made me see a great father, thank you.

  7. Sam says:

    However, I think your is a great father, and how can be a good father,i like it .

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