Mathew Weiss
Mathew Weiss

Branding in the era of identity politics

by Mathew Weiss. These are the broader cultural and socio-political trends that are shaping how consumers view and judge brands.

by Mathew Weiss. It has been three months since the TRESemmé advert ran on Clicks website and social feeds. The public and political reaction was both a warning and a lesson for brands. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s worth looking at the broader cultural and socio-political trends that are shaping how consumers now view and judge brands.

Rise in citizen mobilisation and protest

There has been a shift in the way citizens express their opinions. Globally, we’ve seen periods of protests before, but the current frequency and variety of protest issues are unusual. In South Africa, the average number of protests trended up from 2.26 per day to 2.5 from 2019. Service delivery and labour are the most common issues, but as in other countries, a greater number of protests are related to the politics of identity (for instance, minority rights). When brands get involved, either through design or by accident, they’re entering an already highly-charged and volatile arena.

Caught up in global culture wars

Consumer culture has become a key battleground for identity politics. Brands have played their part in this. The move towards purpose-led marketing has seen marketers ramp up the role that brands aspire to play in social and cultural issues – they promote brands as good corporate citizens – whether it’s issues around female beauty, violence against women or sanitation – because it’s seen, in part, as a good way to drive sales. This is an effective strategy when consumer culture is relatively benign – but as culture has become more fraught and politicised, so the dangers for brands messing up has increased – Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner advert being one example.

Losing the ‘middle ground’

One of the more significant shifts in society, which has wide-reaching implications for brands, is the loss of the so-called ‘middle ground’. This is easiest to see in the current state of American politics. Historically there were three mainstream political positions: Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right and a middle ground of Centrists. Until recently, this middle ground was where you found most sports and brands. It’s where you could go to avoid taking a position. It was the safest strategy. But as politics have become more polarized, this safe space has shrunk. In sport, for instance, ‘Taking the knee’ is no longer an exceptional event; it has become commonplace.

Similarly, for brands, it’s difficult to remain neutral on socio-political issues. Saying ‘the company’ doesn’t have an ‘official’ opinion on matters like Black Lives Matter (BLM), is no longer acceptable. Superbalist found this out when it initially took a neutral position on BLM but later changed its mind after a backlash. If brands stay silent, it’s increasingly seen as siding with the oppressor.

Political parties getting involved

While there was genuine anger and debate about the TRESemmé ad immediately after it was spotted, the discussion remained largely confined to social media, Twitter in particular. Google search term data shows that it was only after the EFF got involved and called on its “fellow fighters” and “ground forces” to shut down or “ATTACK!!” Clicks’ stores nationwide, that mainstream media and public interest in the story really took off. Whether or not you agree with the EFF’s tactics, there is little doubt they gained political capital from highlighting the issue.

What can marketers learn from this?
  • Effective governance and marketing technology: Traditional marketing governance models are not fully able to cope with the speed and volume of social media output. Marketing automated checklists of inappropriate or cautionary words should be built-in. Guidelines defining tone of voice and how photography should be used need to be updated to reflect reality. Higher-level sign-off of communications is now essential.
  • Diverse teams: Even with the best protocols in place, the volume of social media communications makes it is almost impossible for executives to review every post. Those working with the brand should have the cultural sensitivity and understanding to spot these mistakes in real-time before going live. A diverse team of race, gender and sexuality is the best defence.
  • Scrutinise partner brands: Brands are judged by the company they keep. The way the Clicks/TRESemmé story played out shows the public doesn’t see the distinction between a product brand and the retailer like marketers do. The brands that a company partners with are seen as a reflection of shared values.
  • Internal alignment: Brand guidelines do not reference where a company stands on emotive cultural issues like BLM and LGBTQIA+ rights, and so on. Decisions on what is or isn’t politically acceptable are left to individuals to determine and are open to misinterpretation. A conscious choice may need to be made. Neutrality is no longer an option.
Long-term view

While this all matters to brands, it is equally important to remember that what ultimately damages sales are less poor short-term marketing decisions, but rather a decline in long-term brand relevance. In a social world, and the 24-hour, instant news cycle, it is easy for marketers to be distracted from the real value they bring to a company, which is to focus on long-term brand building.


Mathew Weiss is the managing director for Superunion Africa. He has accumulated broad experience in both design and advertising in the US, Central America and EMEA where he built brands across a range of industries including FMCG, financial services, hospitality and tourism. He has a degree in English literature and a diploma in strategic marketing from Cambridge. As a keen sportsman, he spends much of his spare time in pursuit of a lower handicap and fewer double faults.


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