Content Strategy

Culture wars put marketing in the crosshairs: Four tips to guide your decision-making

Note: The intent of this post isn’t to criticize the hard-working, talented marketing teams who have fallen victim to the current political landscape. Its intent is to offer guidance through these challenging times.

It seemed like a great idea. Little did they know, however, that they would pour fuel on the flames of America’s culture wars. During the few weeks between April and July, several beloved national brands – Bud Lite, the L.A. Dodgers and Target – were scorched by cultural rage. (See summary below.) As a result, brand association is in the spotlight and more marketing teams find themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion.

How should marketers react to this new level of scrutiny? How do you reach a new generation of customers while not alienating your base? Can you align with a social issue without losing ground? Here is a four-step approach that can help protect your brand when targeting new demographics.

1. Retain. Connecting your brand to future generations is a smart move. But you can never lose sight of who your existing customers are and what they love about your brand. So how do you retain them while reaching a very different, new audience? Start by digging deeper into the positive, emotional triggers of your base. Then translate those sentiments into the symbols and language that resonate with your new target audiences. Symbols that elicit the same emotional trigger may be very different for each audience. But you have to be careful. If your long-time customers are scratching their heads over your new promotion, chances are you missed the mark. If it offends them, then you have a much bigger problem. They will stop trusting your brand. And, if your base no longer trusts your brand, why would your new target audience trust it?

2. Research. You know your brand’s attributes and the profiles of your target demographics. It may be the right thing for your brand to take a stand on an issue, but this step may need a deeper level of research. You don’t want to discredit your new message by stepping into unnecessary traps. Do background checks on proposed brand “heroes.” What do they stand for? What have they said in the past? A family-oriented store promoting gay pride is not at risk if the focus remains on the family. Gay families are a great symbol of gay pride. But if the brand heroes are not family focused and offend other customers, the store is taking on baggage it doesn’t want. Why fight unnecessary battles and hurt your brand due to lack of knowledge? And that leads into point #3.

3. Respect. Keep your brand on the right side of fairness and dignity. This includes respecting the religious and cultural beliefs of all your customers. You can be outrageous. You can take a positive stand. You can make statements that support those on the fringe and still show positive results. But you need to avoid appearing to trample the values of others. If throwing your support behind a creative idea requires throwing the values of other customers under the bus, then you need a better idea.

4. Commit. If you’re taking a stand, be sure your brand can commit to it. Be fully prepared to stand behind it! Flipflopping is the worst you can do. Everyone gets angry and your brand looks opportunistic. If you’re taking a new creative direction and stepping into cultural issues, which may be the best thing for your brand’s growth, be sure it has the full backing and commitment of your organization’s top levels. If you can’t garner that commitment, then don’t do it. Your brand will suffer. You can create tremendous long-term benefits if you’re prepared to take a short-term hit. However, if your executive team isn’t ready to stand behind the plan, then the plan shouldn’t be executed.

Bottom line, brand wars are full-waged battles. They’re not for the faint of heart. If your brand is targeting new audience or demographic, you need to commit your brand to that audience while bringing along the emotional support of your base. You can achieve great results with research, respect and understanding. Do your homework. Be prepared to educate. And, be prepared to fight for every inch of ground.

Summary of events: Here is a brief synopsis of three events that occurred in Spring 2023.

Bud Light: In an effort to reach a younger, more trendy audience, Bud Light enlisted the help of social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who has an estimated 10 million followers and is known for detailing her gender transition in daily videos on Tik Tok since early 2022. The action of associating with a trans-gender influencer was highly criticized and condemned by long-term Bud Light customers. The decision by Bud Light’s executive team to then immediately disassociate with Mulvaney drew the ire of many in the new target audience Bud Light was trying to reach, drawing additional condemnation.

L.A. Dodgers: To celebrate Pride Night 2023, the L.A. Dodgers announced they were honoring the charitable works of the Sisters for Perpetual Indulgence, a non-profit entertainment and charitable group of male and non-binary performers who dress in drag as nuns. Prior to the event, many fans were angered by the team’s support of an organization that is viewed by some as being anti-Catholic and mocking Christian traditions.

Target: To promote its colorful line of clothing in support of gay pride, Target showcased the rainbow-styled clothing at the front of its stores. Anti-gay groups protested the move and discovered that one of Target’s designers was involved in sarcastically promoting devil worship. The sarcasm didn’t translate and created an anti-Christian, anti-family stigma for Target.