Brands have things to learn from both Trump and Biden's approach to populism

No brand should be aiming to emulate Trump's bigotry or encouragement of violence – but there is sometimes a place for his divisiveness.

Did you see the love hearts that the Bidens set out on the Whitehouse lawn for Valentine’s day, filled with messages to the American nation like “Unity”, “Hope” and “Love”? You don’t have to be a master in semiotics to spot that these were designed to put some distance between the current and previous First Families.

Many in adland are also pretty happy to see the back of Trump’s famously populist presidency. And there’s a group with a particular reason to be cheerful – those of us who believe in creative (not political) populism: that the most effective creativity speaks to the many rather than the few.

Thankfully for this school of creative thought, Biden is now being hailed as a populist, too (a progressive populist). And as the stigma around the P-word diminishes we can be loudly and proudly creatively populist without sounding like we want to Make America Great Again. Phew. 

So what lessons can anyone looking to speak to mass audiences learn from these two strands of populism from Trump and Biden? 

Their policy differences are less relevant to the daily life of brands. More revealing are their strategies for creating emotional engagement with their audiences. 

Trump may have avoided impeachment this month, but it was clear from his rhetoric that we’re going to see a continuation of his signature strategy: the use of friction and division as the source of emotional engagement with his supporters. 

Biden, meanwhile, is clearly adopting a different approach. From Amanda Gorman’s striking calls for unity in her inauguration poem The Hill We Climb, to the First Lady’s folksy love letters on the lawn, he is aiming to move people through an appeal for togetherness.

But are these two opposing approaches, of friction and unity, both fair game for brands? 

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that business leaders, for the first time, enjoy greater levels of public trust than politicians do. And as we know from another American icon, Spider-Man, with great power, comes great responsibility. So, in a world struggling with polarisation, do businesses need to be firmly on the side of unity?

Some of the challenges of championing unity can be seen in Jeep’s Super Bowl ad, “The middle”, starring blue-collar hero Bruce Springsteen. In its call for togetherness, the ad managed to inadvertently pull off the feat of being one of the most divisive of the night

But can brands justify going the other way and actively playing to division and friction?

Abrasive creative is nothing new. From the Shake’n’Vac song to the Go Compare singer, advertisers have long used friction to drive salience. But this approach, while unleashing unwelcome earworms and reducing brand likeability, is unlikely to endanger the fabric of society.  

Others recognise their products themselves are divisive, from the sublime (step up Marmite) to the ridiculous (Andrex’s Scrunch vs Fold, anyone?). But, if treated with a deft lightness of touch, this can be a playful way to engage both lovers and haters.

Some look to take on the category establishment. There’s an echo of Trump’s swamp-draining bravado in BrewDog’s self-styled punkish campaigns. But the worst one can say is that such strategies are at some point likely to prove growth-limiting. It’s easier to play the scrappy outsider when you have sales of $300m per year than it is when you enjoy Carlsberg’s $10bn.

Others directly enter the political fray. But no matter how satisfying it might be to tell a president to f**k off as Rebel Kitchen did, this is clearly a case of stooping to someone else’s level, rather than following Michelle Obama’s famous mantra “When they go low, we go high”. 

Then we come to those who take a social stand, notably Nike in its Colin Kapaernick campaign. It bravely supported the right of black NFL players to take a knee in the face of Trump’s condemnation of the practice. It was unapologetically provocative and political – was it also irresponsibly divisive?

In a word, no. There’s an important distinction to make here. Campaigns like Nike’s are not deliberately sowing differences. They don’t suggest, as Trump so often does, that if you are different you are an inferior, second-class citizen. They are actually defending the right to be different. They don’t demonise difference, they celebrate it.

And there are those that put this celebration of difference not just at the heart of a campaign, but at the heart of their brand. From Skoda’s celebration of those that are “Driven by something different”, to Apple’s iconic “Think different” and its current challenger Android’s platform of “Together, not the same”.  

This shows how brands can best treat the potentially toxic area of difference today. Not by glossing over it, like Bruce and Jeep. Not by resorting to name calling, like Rebel Kitchen. But by accepting and celebrating our differences – whether playfully or powerfully. 

We are all different. It’s the one thing we all share. Difference unites us. And perhaps that’s what the Bidens should have written in a love heart on the White House lawn this weekend. 

Josh Bullmore is chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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