Politics dominated every channel and platform during election week 2020, and consumers ate it up. On TV, vote counts and projections took over. FOX ran the most-watched election night coverage in the history of cable news, and when the election was called for Joe Biden, 21 million people tuned into TV news on a Saturday morning.
(That’s not normal — though it’s not the Super Bowl, either.)
On social media, too, the election had major traction. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris tweeted a clip of her calling president-elect Joe Biden to celebrate their win, and it became the fifth most-liked tweet of all time. Meanwhile, TikTok, which saw an an explosion of fancams for news anchors like CNN’s John King; the platform’s #johnking hashtag has been viewed more than eight million times.
Even escapist, candy-colored battle game Fortnite acknowledged the presidential race. Joe Biden’s campaign launched a “Build Back Better” map in the game, complete with a train depot called “No Malarkey Station.”
It was a strange week for marketers. They could reach masses of people, but the opportunity came with a catch — they had to do it in 2020, adjacent to “probably the most loud and divisive presidential race in history,” as Jeff Cantalupo, a partner at Listen VC, put it to Marketerhire.
It was a chance to make a splash. But was it brand safe?
For meditation and sleep app Calm, it was. The company sponsored CNN’s “Key Race Alerts” on election night; it also ran a minimalist ad during CNN’s election coverage, focused on rain sounds.
“Do nothing for 15 seconds,” onscreen text advised.
Delighted viewers tweeted screenshots of Calm’s CNN cameos en masse. The Calm app saw a nearly 250% day-over-day increase in Twitter mentions on election day, Ad Age reported, and Twitter analytics firm Talkwalker found that the majority of its mentions — 54% — had a positive tone.
Even Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian praised the campaign, calling it “genius” and highlighting the social engagement.
Calm’s election strategy had deep roots. The company’s ad blitz actually started on Halloween. Its simple, soothing TV spots had amassed 55 million impressions before election night, Ad Age reported.
On social, Calm had laid groundwork for its CNN debut for even longer, hopping on the #Debates2020 hashtag with a video of windblown prairie grass.
Cantalupo, whose firm invested in Calm back in 2012 when it was “just a calm.com domain name and a beautiful visual of calming scenery,” has followed Calm’s marketing for over a decade. He noted that its election night approach fit with the company’s longer-term strategy: product-led growth.
The team is all about “using the product as marketing,” he said. That means “the advertising in and of itself is hopefully giving people a moment of calm” — and a sneak peek of the app, right when viewers might need it.
That paid off election week. Calm’s CNN buy was an awareness play, in Cantalupo’s eyes. It also lifted lower-funnel metrics; the app’s downloads and chart rankings jumped during election week, and it reached number one in the U.S. Health and Fitness category in Apple’s App StoreThat’s not to mention the “viral coefficient,” as Cantalupo put it — the frequency with which people who felt compelled to share Calm’s marketing strategy with other people.
“The kind of noise you see on social and the chord that this [media] buy has struck with people… at the end of the day, that leads to more [awareness]” Cantalupo said. The onslaught of tweets and media coverage made “the brand more relevant in culture.”
Not every brand was so lucky.
Gap didn’t have anything unusual to say the day after the election. The company just wanted to talk about unity.
“I don't think… a unity message from a brand during a divisive election is that crazy,” Cantalupo said. “I would imagine that's probably a brief that a thousand creative agencies got from their big brand clients.”
But for Gap in particular, it backfired. The apparel company encouraged Americans to “move forward” as one in a now-deleted tweet featuring an image of a half-red, half-blue logo hoodie.
It sparked immediate Twitter backlash. Why? And how did Calm elicit such a different response?
There are a lot of different factors at play, including timing. Calm’s message came at the anxious height of election uncertainty; Gap encouraged Americans to move forward days before the election was even called.
”[I]t was just too soon for this message,” a Gap representative told CBS.
For Cantalupo, relevance was another key differentiator between Gap and Calm. The election was creating a problem Calm was designed to solve: anxiety.
Calm’s media buy was funny because it broke the news broadcast’s fourth wall to acknowledge viewers’ feelings. It didn’t make Calm’s core product look funny, though; it made it look useful.
Gap’s tweet, by comparison, highlighted the uselessness of its product. “I don't think a sweatshirt is going to go a long way to [solve] the divisiveness that we see,” Cantalupo joked.
His takeaway? Brands shouldn’t assume commenting on news — even major news — will translate into positive engagement and relevance. Especially when the news is fraught, silence can be golden.
“I don't need my waffles to be Republican or Democrat,” he said. And the public doesn’t need Gap to be sympathetic to both parties, either.
The New News Playbook for Brands
So how can brands follow in Calm’s footsteps, and avoid Gap’s mistakes? The key, Cantalupo said, is saying something that has value for customers, and speaking up about current events relevant to your product and long-standing values.
“Big brands often fail when they try to do something very topical, that is not… rooted in authenticity,” he said.
We saw this play out this summer, as brands weighed in on the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality that swept the nation after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
Some statements of solidarity were met with skepticism. Everlane’s kick-started a discussion about currents of racism in the company culture. Amazon sparked controversy with a statement that felt at odds with its core business.
But Ben & Jerry’s — an ice cream brand with a history of racial justice advocacy — released a well-received statement titled “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.”
It’s much easier to act on an existing value than to roll out a timely new one, Canatlupo noted.
One brand that particularly exemplifies this for him: Patagonia. When the company speaks out against climate change, or runs pointed campaigns around the issue, “it rings very true,” Cantalupo said. “As a brand, it has always stood for that.”
That holds for Patagonia’s messaging and its business practices; the outdoor outfitter plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2025.
Patagonia took a partisan tone this election season, with a landing page encouraging customers to “vote climate deniers out of office” — but that made sense, given their audience and their history. It wasn’t controversial; it wasn’t really news.
That doesn’t mean it flopped. Patagonia’s long-standing commitment to fighting climate change has paid off; between 2008 to 2018, Patagonia’s revenue quadrupled, Fast Company reported.
“You're seeing belief as a pathway to purchase,” Cantalupo said. “Brands that stand for sustainability… are doing that because they believe their consumers care, and are going to show their support with their dollars.”
Brands that want to earn customer loyalty through a shared belief, though, have to “live it and breathe it” all the time, he added. Fleeting affiliation with a cause can look opportunistic.
But when it came to this election, there were no hard and fast rules. Irish airline RyanAir, for instance, managed to hit the Twitter jackpot by tying a partisan meme to its cheap flights.
This looks risky, but “it's fleeting,” Cantalupo said. “It’s on social, and then it’s gone.” (Though tweets live on in screenshots, as Gap learned firsthand.)
RyanAir also benefits from distance. It’s not an American company, which makes the tweet read more like a playful jab at the U.S. than an earnest statement of party affiliation.
(European brands love “poking at their Western friends,” Cantalupo observed. )
Most importantly, it passes the “Why is my brand’s commentary of value?” test: it’s funny. It cut the tension during a tense time — just like Calm’s rain sounds did.