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Big Tent Branding

By J. Walker Smith

Executive Chairman, Kantar Futures

 

Brands are under pressure to take a stand like never before. They’re worried that people will vote their politics with their pocketbooks. But while every brand needs to address this challenge, the evidence shows that in most cases they should refrain from taking sides. For one, it is rare for inflamed emotions to shift the flow of marketplace outcomes. For another, it’s not clear that brands can bear the weight of social and political burdens.

 

Research about brand boycotts is mixed. Highly focused, well-funded, sustained national boycotts can have a meaningful impact on brands, but the vast majority of boycotts don’t operate this way. In aggregate, only about one-quarter of such efforts get any concessions from the company they target.

 

The more obvious problem for brands is that taking sides limits growth opportunities. Think about the numbers for a moment. Politicians can win with the narrowest of margins. It only takes one vote. But brands have to keep adding more and more customers in order to grow. Generally speaking, they cannot afford to estrange a large portion of their potential customer base, even over issues that are passionate concerns for many consumers.

 

As Kantar Worldpanel has found, brands grow by increasing penetration. They create a franchise not by squeezing more out of a small niche of like-minded consumers, but by bringing disparate consumers together. By and large, niche brands are just small brands with a few customers, not brands that are differentiated in kind.

 

Successful brands must appeal across the board. They have to bring together as many different people as possible—or they risk staying small with limited appeal and potential.

 

Bringing people together is also a better approach, if brands have the public good in mind. As a result, they should look for common ground that unites their potential customers rather than pick sides on contentious and confrontational issues.

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean they should stand idly by if immoral, dissolute movements threaten the shared welfare of society and community. Compromising ethics is not an option. But they should look first to unite, both out of self-interest and in the interest of the common good.

 

In fact, winning elections is probably not the best model for brands to consider when thinking about how to respond to pressure that they take a stand. The better model is governance. In the absence of common ground, governance is stymied by divisiveness and polarization. This is true of brands, too. We cannot manage a brand well if we mire it in the tumult of discord and acrimony.

 

Besides, people want to belong. They want to feel connected to others and to a greater sense of purpose and well-being. Culture critic Bob Lefsetz reflected on this a few years ago when he tried to make sense of the mass appeal of Adele’s 25 tour and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He wondered how this could happen an era when the long tail supposedly describes what culture is all about. On his blog, he noted that isolation from others is “anathema to the human condition.” Yes, he wrote, everybody wants to indulge their own personal interests, but ultimately people “want to go where everybody else does.” As he put it in all caps, “PEOPLE WANT TO BELONG.”

 

Brands have an imperative to offer consumers ways to belong. We call this “Big Tent Branding.” Today, people feel left out and left behind. They have a palpable yearning to come together. They want to belong to a larger narrative that includes them in shared ambitions and aspirations.

 

Brands can find plenty of common ground on which to pitch a big tent. Kantar Futures research finds that 80 percent or more of people in every demographic group in America agree on the following points: that diversity is one of the country’s greatest strengths, that traditional gender roles should not dictate how people live their lives, and that hard work is the way to get what you want out of life. People may disagree about the particulars, but they share the same core values.

 

The Big Tent is the 21st century form of community. It is a canvas large enough to include everyone, without requiring everyone to march in lockstep. Brands as varied as Mini, Airbnb, and Dove have erected big tents that embed individual identity within a broader sense of belonging. While it may be hard for brands to resist the calls to jump into the fray of belligerent politics, the higher ground and the bigger opportunity lies in Big Tent Branding.