Last Sunday, most of us eagerly watched what many are calling the greatest Super Bowl in history. Depending on which team you pulled for, either it was the greatest comeback you’d ever seen in football or one of the most painful collapses in recent memory. Aside from the usual Monday morning quarterbacking and endless analysis of the game, we also heard the annual water cooler banter about the best Super Bowl commercials. But, this year was different on the ad front.
Not only was the game itself something we have never seen before, the commercials entered a different space – one that is very close to the flame for restaurant operators. Several brands, including some close to the industry like Budweiser, Coke and Mexican avocado growers, dove head first into the political space and, in effect, threw a warning shot across the bow of the Trump administration on immigration. Whether it was Budweiser chronicling the immigrant story of Aldophus Busch, the re-airing of a 2014 Coke ad with America the Beautiful sung in multiple languages, or the “We Accept” ad from AirBnB, elite brands decided to come out from the political shadows, roll the dice and make a statement.
Spending the last 25 years as a corporate executive, corporate consultant or at a minimum, keen observer, I was mesmerized. You don’t often see major consumer-facing brands paying significant dollars to make a political statement. What is particularly interesting to me is the audience to whom they were speaking. While certainly those executives ran the cost/benefit analysis of the potential perception of sending such a strident message to the political establishment, I would argue that Washington D.C. was not the real audience. They can lobby directly, fundraise or leverage social media if they want to get a message to Trump – you don’t buy a $5 million ad to talk to the White House.
Budweiser, Coke and others clearly had an eye on D.C., but the real audience for their message was their employees and their customers. They essentially said to the country, “Here are our values as a company; here’s who we are; let the chips fall where they may. And not just for today – always.” That last part of the implied message is important. To me, this was one strategic move in a long game of chess, not a knee-jerk reaction to a quickly shifting political landscape.
During last week’s Global Best Practices Conference in Dallas, we had the privilege of hearing from Professor James Johnson who discussed the demographic changes coming to the country over the next 30 years. One of the many takeaways from that fascinating session was that the country is getting both less white and younger. And that train left the station long ago. As the legendary political consultant James Carville is fond of saying, “demographics is destiny.”
Smart companies like Coke and Budweiser know that. And they also know they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. They have been around for over a century and survived great depressions, world wars, and cold wars. They prospered when Republicans ran the country and also when Democrats ran the country. And they will survive the current political and cultural environment in which they find themselves and more than likely, stay relevant in the marketplace for another century. As such, they believed that the current turmoil in which their customers and employees live necessitated not so much a message to the president, but a calming message to their workforce and customer base. Their message is this – Great American institutions predicated on traditional American values always survive. And so will we.
While doing that took a great deal of courage knowing there would be blowback in the short term, it was also smart business. It was an eye toward the future. Nothing is the same anymore in our rapidly changing political and cultural environment and the propensity for corporate leaders and brands to “stay out of it” is becoming more obsolete by the day. Demographics are creating workers and customers that expect a lot more from them. If leaders ignore those emerging expectations for some perception of short-term cover, they do so at their own peril. Coke and Budweiser understand this clear as day. One of the many reasons why they have been around so long.