Out of a generally uninspiring batch of ads this year, one trend stood out: brands using the largest ad platform in the US to align their brand with social and political values that generally are thought to have no place in the bottom-line world of driving quarterly business results. Social media listening firm Talkwalker notes that 5 of the top 10 most talked about ads have a social or political theme and generated strong positive sentiment: Budweiser, Audi, Coca-Cola, 84 Lumber, and AirBnB.

Not all ads attempting to align a brand with societal values were successful: Audi’s attempt to take a stand on gender pay equity lacked a credible connection to this testosterone-fueled luxury car. And, of course, taking a stand risks alienating consumers who disagree. Since Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” ad was originally conceived long before the election, I’m not convinced they were trying to make a statement about immigration policy. But it is certainly being seen in that tone and has brought out a fair share of trolls commenting on YouTube.

These brands are acknowledging that the idea that “the business of business is business” is changing. Along with my colleagues Henry Peyret, Brigitte Majewski, Alex Cullen and Drew Green, I have been exploring the changing nature of how consumers incorporate these broader values into their brand decisions. Stay tuned for the report but our research tells us 3 things a brand must do to walk this delicate line in today’s polarized environment.

  • Carefully consider where your brand should be on what Carol Cone calls “The Purpose Spectrum”
  • Be authentic and back up the words with tangible commitments
  • Allow the values to transform the brand and company through innovative products, operational changes, and employee policies consistent with the values.

In the meantime, kudos to Coca-Cola for taking a core brand value they have stood for for a long time and updating it to today’s current challenging sociopolitical environment.

To set the stage, we need to go back to the “I want to teach the world to sing” commercial of 1971 which featured young people from around the world on a hilltop to symbolize Coke’s aspiration to bring the world together.


Then this year, updating this sentiment to the current politically-charged climate, Coke’s ad depicts Americans of diverse ethnic, racial, and country-of-origin backgrounds singing “America the Beautiful”. Remove the groovy back-to-the-land references to “apples trees and honeybees” and change the Woodstock vibe to universal friends-and-family-moments scenes (with the obligatory Grand Canyon shot).  But this ad wasn’t produced for this year’s game, they originally ran it in 2014.

Agree or disagree on the politics and policies, give Coke credit for maintaining consistency in its brand values.