Lessons for brands from 2020 as we head into the election

2020 has been a crash course in crisis management. As the election nears, marketers must once again toe the line between getting involved and staying in their lane.

Between COVID-19 and social unrest, this year has been a minefield for brands.

Less than one week out from the most partisan and consequential election in U.S. history, that reality is truer than ever.

If 2020 has taught brands anything, it's that they no longer have an excuse to sit out important conversations -- presidential elections included. But they also have to walk a fine line to avoid inserting themselves where they don’t belong.

Nowhere is this balance more precarious than on social media, where brands are in conversation with consumers 24/7. While these platforms can be a powerful tool for brands to support voter efforts, they can just as easily burst into a tinderbox for public scrutiny.

All of this makes these next seven days very daunting for marketers. But brands have been prepping for this moment all year. Here are a few best practices from 2020 brands can take with them to the election.

1. Speak up

Companies that were shamed for staying silent during the Black Lives Matter movement, or making claims and promises that didn’t check out, learned the hard way that actions speak louder than words.

Consumers today want brands to speak up on issues that matter to them, including the election. Twenty one percent of people are very likely to view a brand more favorably, and buy more products from them, if they get involved in the election conversation, according to a survey of 300 consumers by survey marketplace Lucid.

But brands need to go beyond just talking and say something of value. We saw how consumers revolted when brands posted black squares on Instagram on #BlackOutTuesday in July, drowning out important resources for people of color. Speak up, but do it with substance.

2. Stay agile

Conversations on social media can go viral in an instant, and that can be either really good or really bad for a brand. But rather than turn the lights off, brands should stay agile in their plans this week based on what’s happening in the national conversation, says Kristin Maverick, VP social and Influencer marketing at 360i.

“Monitor conversations, trends and news of the day closely, and evaluate planned content to mitigate potential risks,” she adds. “Flexibility is key during a turbulent time on social, and that turbulence is only expected to escalate over the next 10 days.”

Just like with COVID-19 and the BLM movement, the election won’t be done and dusted overnight. Ballots will be counted for weeks after election day, and it’s possible public unrest will arise during that period. Vigilance and flexibility will be key for weeks to come.

3. Be real

Everyone saw right through those COVID-19 ads with inauthentic platitudes like “we’re all in this together.” Leading up to the election, brands should be bold in their stances and confident about what they’re trying to say.

That doesn’t mean, however, that marketing has to be all serious. Humorous posts from lighthearted brands can actually resonate during a stressful time. In its election POV for marketers, 360i pointed to a recent ad from Dunkin’ that plays on the election with the tagline “in sprinkles we trust.”

“If your brand does choose to engage, do it in a way that remains true to your brand voice,” Maverick says. “Focus on positivity and participation over politics and party lines, and avoid overly promotional or self-serving content.”

4. Don’t change the subject

Consumers don’t care about anything this week except the election. No, not even your new campaign or product launch. Sorry.

Join the only conversation people are having this week. Focus on messages that encourage voter turnout and respond to what’s going on in the world. Forty percent of people feel “get out the vote” messages have a positive impact on brand favorability, according to a MullenLowe survey of 500 Americans. Anything else will probably come across as tone deaf.

It’s gonna be a bumpy ride, folks. But we’ve spent all year training for this.

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