Do consumers want their food served with a side of politics?
- Land O'Lakes and Ben & Jerry's recently made news for reasons unrelated to food by financially supporting political activities. Land O’Lakes contributed $2,500 to the re-election campaign of Rep. Steve King (R - Iowa) and later pulled its support for him over racial remarks. Ben & Jerry's released a new flavor to fight President Trump's agenda and pledged $100,000 to organizations that aim to resist oppression, harmful environmental practices and injustice.
- According to new data from YouGov statistics, consumer approval varied between the two brands. About 36% of Land O'Lakes customers said companies should take on political causes, while 44% said they should not. For Ben & Jerry's consumers, 42% said they approve of brands getting involved in societal issues, and 37% don’t.
- Although both consumer bases skew more liberal than the general public, the difference came down to age. About 56% of Land O'Lakes customers are 50 or older, while 58% of Ben & Jerry's customers are between 18 and 49, according to the data.
With the midterm elections on Tuesday, politics are on everyone’s mind — including food brands. While Ben & Jerry's is known for political activism, the same can't be said for Land O'Lakes, which on the surface may appear to be the simple explanation for the differences in consumer approval of each brand aligning themselves with politics. But the real reason may go a bit deeper.
In today's market, activism sells. Consumers like storytelling and are willing to pay more and offer loyalty to brands that are transparent and have a mission behind their product. Research shows that brands consumers view as having a positive impact are growing at two times the rate of others.
"Positive impact," though, is more aligned to mission-based marketing rather than overt politics like donating directly to a representative — which could be where Land O’Lakes originally went wrong. Consumers are interested in a company's ideals, but Land O'Lakes choice to donate through its PAC may not have been intended as a marketing initiative. In a statement explaining their now-retracted support for King, the company said its donations are "traditionally contributed to lawmakers of both parties that represent the communities where our members and employees live and work and are also on committees that oversee policies that directly impact our farmer owners."
Ben & Jerry's had more support for its decision to release a "Pecan Resist" flavor and financially support Color of Change, Honor the Earth, Neta and Women's March organizations. In a statement on its website, the company wrote that "this pint packs a powerful message under its lid: together, we can build a more just and equitable tomorrow."
"We can peacefully resist the Trump administration’s regressive and discriminatory policies and build a future that values inclusivity, equality, and justice for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, refugees, and immigrants," the company wrote.
However, the new politically charged flavor is almost expected from Ben & Jerry's, which has in its history used ice cream to support causes like same-sex marriages and the fight against climate change. As a condition of its 2000 sale, the brand, now owned by Unilever, a significant amount of profits go to several foundations and social initiatives. And when Matthew McCarthy became the ice cream brand's new CEO this summer, he pledged to amp up the company's tradition of advocating for social causes.
That is not to say that all do-good political marketing initiatives are successful either. In 2010, Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Initiative, in which it donated $20 million in grants to individuals and non-profits making a positive impact on communities. The $20 million for the new approach came from its traditional marketing budget for a Super Bowl ad. The initiative was widely publicized, but after two years and shrinking sales, Pepsi backtracked and returned to its Super Bowl marketing.
Still, when companies position themselves in activism roles from the get-go, things seem to work out better. When Paul Newman founded Newman’s Own in 1982 with a single salad dressing, he committed to donating all of the company’s after-tax profits to charity. Built on this promise, the brand has not only thrived among consumers, but it has also donated more than $500 million to worthy causes.
So although there is no exact recipe for success when mixing food and politics, companies who successfully align themselves with a political agenda do so by getting cozy with ideologies rather than specific candidates. After all, politicians change, but the way people identify is a lifestyle that can last a lifetime. And what company doesn't want to become a lifestyle brand?