Your Brand Doesn’t Have to Be Political to Be Authentic

A marketing flop helps us understand why consumers value brand activism.


Politics, religion, and money—once taboo topics for the dinner table have now become all but essential ingredients of effective brand copy. Companies are proudly voicing their views on equality, inclusivity, ESG responsibility, and politics on a regular basis. In fact, silence on social justice is increasingly viewed as complicity by consumers who are increasingly looking to put their dollars behind companies that share their values.

And the numbers are too significant to ignore. So-called “belief-driven buyers” now comprise two-thirds of consumers around the world. Globally, individuals across all markets, age groups, and income levels have indicated willingness to buy or boycott based on a brand’s stance on issues like human rights, systemic racism, and economic inequality.

We’ve reached a tipping point. Authenticity, integrity, and the fight for a better future—these are the new commodities companies are selling. Consumers are more likely to remember an outspoken brand with a strong sense of purpose and remain loyal to that company, even after a few mistakes.

For brands looking to speak up, read on to learn a few pointers from the U.S. spice retailer Penzys Spices on how to—and how to not—use your values to season your marketing communications.

Penzeys Spices finds political and promotional copy don’t always mix

Penzeys Spices is a fascinating case study in the risks and rewards of CEOs using their bully pulpits to influence audience opinion and behavior. Politics aren’t for every palate, but adding extra flavor to marketing emails has worked in the past for Bill Penzey, the CEO of America’s largest independent spice retailer.

Following the election of Donald Trump, Bill Penzey’s email to consumers about the “open embrace of racism by the Republican Party” tapped into a common sentiment. Spice fans opened their wallets, doubling gift box orders and increasing online sales 60%. 

Fast-forward to February 2022. Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, subscribers received a fiery email for a promotion titled, “Republicans Are Racists Weekend.” This time, instead of buying gift boxes, 3% of Penzey’s customers—some 40,005 people—unsubscribed.

For high-converting copy and content, get in touch with MarketSmiths today.

Breaking down the anatomy of content marketing gone wrong

Where did Penzeys’ copywriting miss the mark—and how can your brand avoid the same fate? Here are a few improvements:

Lead with value. 

Email subject lines are pivotal. Unless the audience spots value in those first few words, they’re moving on. “Republicans Are Racists Weekend” doesn’t promise cooking tips or hint at discounts on spices. Instead, it offers anxiety-provoking trigger words like “Republicans” and “racists.”

Word play can be fun, but marketing must make sense.

“Cheese Off Racists” is worse than cliché; it’s gibberish. Even if you feel the Republican party has issues, it’s silly to think that spending $10 to get half a cup of free spice will be your rallying cry. Perhaps donating money from each sale to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation would do more good.

Avoid confusion with clear pronouns and sparing use of formatting.

The email’s frivolous use of colors, capitalization, and italics suggests emphasis or even sarcasm. Who does “our” reference, and who are “they?” How have “they” earned the respect of Penzeys and readers? A clear statement like “Black Lives Matter has earned America’s respect” leaves less to the imagination. 

Consider a positive spin. 

Conveying passion and positivity can trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain, inspiring activity in the prefrontal cortex where decisions are made. Conversely, negative words—such as “lied,” “terrorists,” “violence,” “crapload of guns,” or “racists”—can trigger the release of cortisol, impairing brain function. 

Be kind when using a second person perspective.

Marketers can use second person “you” to establish a direct relationship with audiences. In this case, however, the abrupt shift to second person (and ensuing negativity) becomes a personal attack. The best writing is thoughtful, set aside, edited, and edited some more—not fired off in a fit of passion. 

Recognize that your reputation is at stake.

The conclusion that “racist” Republicans reading this should suddenly realize the error of their ways, become better people, and “choose love”—all because Bill Penzey said so—may have stirred the pot as “the email everybody’s talking about,” but at the cost of customers and brand reputation. 

Beneath this marketing flop lies a lack of understanding as to why consumers value brand activism.

MarketSmiths Case Study: Hilary Hendershott 

Her mission was to empower women to build their wealth. But in a crowded, largely undifferentiated space, Hilary Hendershott was struggling to get her message across. Together, we stripped out anything generic or long-winded from her old website, and reframed her copy to show off her powerful differentiators: her advocacy of women, her standing as a true fiduciary, and her no-nonsense strategies. Pretty soon, her revamped copy was ready to go—providing her with a friendly, rich website and the chance to grow her brand in a busy field.

> Read the full study

Consumers like brands to speak up because it empowers them

Brands live in a defined space and time—not a vacuum. Because of this, the public expects and even looks forward to CEO statements and actions that respond to the issues of the day. When a company’s core values align with current events in some significant way, the resulting political messaging can become a natural extension of the company mission. 

But importantly, these moments of synergy are most effective when they uplift consumers, rather than glorify the brand. Successful brand writing rallies hearts and minds together around universal themes. Buyers thrive when they’re empowered to set the agenda—and shape the brands they love to reflect higher moral values. In fact, the Edelman study found that 54% of consumers have more faith in brands to change societal ills than the governments they’ve elected.

Want help seasoning your message to taste? Get in touch with the content team at MarketSmiths.

Jennn Fusion

Jennn Fusion

Jennn made up her mind to become a writer when she was five years old and has buried herself in research and the written word ever since. She grew up a snowboarding, guitar-playing, concert-going punk-rocker in Buffalo, NY, home of the chicken wing. After earning a BA in Journalism and English from SUNY Geneseo, she spent most of her twenties working as a music journalist and a promotions marketing manager in Toronto. Her freelance writing career spans nearly two decades of crafting copy for lawyers, doctors, realtors, digital marketers, tech startups, and consultants. When she's not on her laptop with 100 tabs open, she's hanging out with her German Shepherds, husband, and two children; dressing up at theme parties; excelling at Cards Against Humanity and Puns of Anarchy; cruising the ocean; or venturing into the woods to live like Thoreau. 

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