Patriotism Sells…Or Does It?
by Alf Nucifora
Patriotic fervor is a recurring phenomenon that coincides with this country's inevitable forays in into theaters of war be they Korea, Viet Nam or the Persian Gulf. American patriotism, as a marketing tool, saw its heyday during the Second World War. Citizens responded to the cause by buying Liberty Bonds, collecting scrap metal and remembering at all times that "loose lips sink ships". In more recent times, the 9/11 tragedy understandably coalesced the national spirit in a manner not witnessed since the days of Pearl Harbor.
Many a marketer rides patriotism's coattails, from political parties courting the easy vote to media outlets (think the New York Post and Fox News) that revel in the stridency of their call-to-arms. At the local level, the auto dealership or independent strip center retailer is permitted the right to plaster its advertising with flag and patriotic theme, whatever it takes to forge an emotional bond in business sectors where emotion is usually subsumed by consumer cynicism or apathy.
Inevitably, patriotism brings out the best and the worst in the nation's psyche. For every wine shop pouring good Bordeaux down the drain, or xenophobic legislator calling for the renaming of French fries, there stands an offsetting call for reason from newspaper editorial and concerned citizen alike. The point is, patriotism stirs the soul, inflames the passions and generates argument and debate. By its very visceral nature and call-to-emotion, it has the fearsome ability to influence behavior and motivate action, not all of it rational or considered. Can this be appropriate territory into which smart brands should venture?
Where Danger Lurks
Even in these times of aroused passion and overt fealty to flag, there is a significant minority of this country's fractious population, equally if not more patriotic, that will respond negatively and silently to an excessive patriotic call. The warning to marketers is that for every customer gained from patriotic entreaty there is the offsetting risk of the one that is lost. Therefore, venture with caution and care. Remember that in uncertain times, as we are currently experiencing, consumers seek stability, substance and trust from their associations, particularly their brands. Notes Kelly O'Keefe, Chairman and CEO of Emergence Brand Labs which consults to clients such as Bloomingdales, Nordstrom and Circuit City, "Consumer cynicism about marketing is at an all time high. As a result of that cynicism, consumers are looking for performance above everything else". If O'keefe is correct, consumers will ultimately forsake the emotion of patriotism for the reality of brand attributes, such as value and performance, that address a pressing consumer need.
The implications for global marketers such as McDonald's, Wal Mart and Coca-Cola are even more pronounced. Given the degree of disagreement that is evident in the rest of the world with respect to US policy in Iraq, global players with highly iconic brands are obviously well advised to lay low and avoid patriotism as a message, either overtly or by implication.
Brand McCarthyism At Play
Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks learned it the hard way-you have to watch your tongue (and your brand communications) particularly in times like these. Criticizing a President or a revered institution may be every citizen's inalienable if not constitutional right, but that counts for naught when patriotic fervor takes control. And it doesn't take much to start the ball rolling. Someone issues criticism on a web site (Matt Drudge) which gets picked up by a talk radio host (Sean Hannity) which goes main stream in the national press (Wall Street Journal). Consider it viral marketing at its most effective. And it can hurt or destroy brands. It happened to Bill Maher and the Dixie Chicks. It's happening to French-based companies and products as we speak. Michael Moore is next (even if it plays to his brand persona). The lesson is clear. Unless one operates in the political arena, there is little to gain and much to lose in criticizing the Red White and Blue.
Brand marketers are best advised to stay the ground. Remember, the consumer is extremely fickle right now. The hourly roller-coastering of the stock market supports that contention. The winning brands are those that stay on message, maintain their core positioning and understand that the American consumers are smart in the way they spend their money, especially when money is tight. This means, as a marketer, be proactive, spend aggressively, but stay with the fundamentals. The emotion of a patriotic message has its time and place, but it's not in marketing.