Walking the Talk — a look at ads and brand personality with Dr. Brad Davis

Sunday, February 5. The annual Festival of Advertising. Also Known As the Super Bowl. Even before the main event, one ad generated a lot of unexpected controversy. Budweiser’s Born the Hard Way” tells the story of founder Adolphus Busch. Busch is shown emigrating from Germany and enduring a variety of hardships — including being confronted by a man telling him he’s not wanted in this country shortly after his arrival — before forming his partnership with Eberhard Anheuser.

Through this ad, Budweiser was attempting to build another layer on their “brand personality.” Brand personality is defined as the personification of the brand or the brand-as-person metaphor, with the goal of making the brand more alive, vibrant and emotionally connected to the target audience. Brand personality is also increasingly important for high-tech brands seeking to connect with consumers on an emotional level. To identify brand personality we often ask consumers “if the brand were alive [literally] what would they be like?”

Watching this ad, we can’t help but see the brand personality of Adolphus Busch. Hard-working. Entrepreneurial. Visionary. Driven. Passionate. Strong. These are just a few of the adjectives that this ad evokes.

Unfortunately, the immigration theme in the Budweiser ad was interpreted as a political statement by some pro-Trump consumers who delivered online calls for a mass boycott. Budweiser executives, however, claimed the ad was not intended to make a political statement just show the origins of their company. The result – lots of news commentary and big questions around the meaning behind the ad.

Budweiser executives claimed the ad began production many months ago, before the immigration controversy reached its pre-Super Bowl pinnacle. That is surely true, although the immigration question has been a hot topic for some time. And, there’s no indication that Budweiser engaged in any pre-testing that might have alerted them to the political interpretation.

You might ask whether or not Budweiser management should’ve foreseen the controversy; however, from a brand personality perspective the key question would seem to be “why isn’t it a political statement?” If the spirit of Adolphus Busch is coursing through Budweiser’s corporate veins – as the commercial claims – then the company should be making a pro-immigration statement. We’re guessing that if Adolphus Busch were alive today he’d be taking a stand.

Admittedly, the current demand by consumers – particularly Millennials – to take stands on contemporary social and political issues is new and often troublesome. Taking a stand usually means alienating part of your customer base. In Budweiser’s case, a political stance against increasingly stringent immigration laws would alienate a core consumer base. But, this is a decision that a great many other North American brands are being asked to make. Coca-Cola, Google and airbnb ran Super Bowl ads clearly stressing the diversity of American society and indicated their discomfort with immigration bans. Starbucks and Ford have also come out against immigration restrictions; and, Silicon Valley is organizing their opposition. And 84 Lumber’s “The Whole Journey” didn’t leave much to the imagination in terms of where they stand.

In the end, as often happens, Budweiser management simply looked at the expected benefits of incorporating the story and spirit of Adolphus Busch – not the impact of this legacy in the current political environment. Budweiser may not have intended to pick a political side with their Super Bowl ad – they also ran a Super Bowl ad featuring a ghostly Spuds McKenzie’s return to promote drinking – but, in today’s political climate there are no sidelines. If you want to build a credible brand personality you may have to take a stand on issues that “person” would be expected to feel strongly about. Millennials in particular seem to have built in hypocrisy detectors. If you’re going to build a strong brand personality understand your responsibility to ‘walk the talk’.

Guest post written by Dr. Brad Davis