Should brands get involved with political debates?

- Icy responses to Ben & Jerry’s social media team: should brands wade into political debates? 

Earlier this week, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s decided to wade in on Twitter to question Home Secretary Priti Patel over her stance on the cross-channel migrant crossings.

It was a topic that was sure to generate a lot of engagement as social media is often a battle ground for people with differing opinions, emotions often simmering towards boiling point; so, should brands get involved with political issues? And, can it enhance or harm their brand?

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The Ben & Jerry’s brand was purchased by Unilever in 2000, 22 years after founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield launched their ice cream venture. Priding themselves on being fair to employees, the environment and their cows, selling out to a large conglomerate was sure to raise eyebrows, no matter how socially conscious Unilever would claim to be.

Fast forward to the present day and the Ben & Jerry’s social team now invest a lot of time engaging with their followers over big topics such as climate change, immigration, asylum seekers and the Black Lives Matter movement.

What is clear when you read through the user comments and responses, is that their posts cause a lot of division, arguments and users calling to boycott their products. Is it the right communication tactic or are they alienating customers?

Understanding your customer base

Ben & Jerry’s primary target audience is under the age of 24, with customer numbers dwindling once they reach over the age of 34. A consumer behaviour report undertaken in 2013 found that the demographic was young professionals or students living in a cosmopolitan city.

“The customer has a fashionable style, an active lifestyle and is concerned with responsible consumption”.

If we look at the recent tweets surrounding the migrant debate, a recent YouGov poll found that 49% of Britons had little (22%) to no sympathy (27%) for migrants who have been crossing the channel from France to England.

However, delving deeper, 73% of labour voters replied they had a great/fair amount of sympathy and in 2019, 56% of 18-24 voted labour, alongside 54% of the 25-29 age demographic.

While the general consensus of this particular issue (based on the YouGov survey) showed the population were more likely to agree with Priti Patel’s stance, their target audience were more likely to agree with the posts by Ben & Jerry’s.

Outspoken brands hit the news

Political tweets or posts from brands are often very risky because the divisiveness creates news stories. However, the publicity from this, and the numerous topics that precede this one, has amplified their reach beyond their typical set of followers. The result being they have seen their following increase significantly as a result.

Decision making on the shelves

Ben & Jerry’s understands their customer base to be young, socially conscious and their purchasing decisions to be guided by like-minded brands. Online, they may upset a large portion of users who will vow to never buy a tub of “overpriced junk food” ever again, however their target audience may just have the Ben & Jerry’s brand at the forefront of their mind the next time they walk down the freezer aisle on a hot summer day.

Right or wrong?

The bottom line is in the sales figures. External factors disrupted sales in Q1 of this year with the lockdown hurting demand. However, Unilever reported at-home ice cream sales increased 26% in Q2, with Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum leading the growth.

While sales of Ben & Jerry’s continue to grow, the stance of the social media team to continue weighing in on political debate will carry on, no matter how controversial. The reason being that their target audience has responded positively to their highlighting a side of the debate which resonates with their views, and their loyalty to the brand will increase as a result.

It’s a risky tactic, but it is a good example of how a brand has stuck by their guns to improve loyalty with their customer base, and has not tried to please everyone along the way.