Consumer Insights

The Tightrope Walk Of Leveraging Politics For Profit

Do Politics Sell?

Political opinions are like dreams. Everybody has them, but they shouldn’t be talked about in public unless specifically requested.

This philosophy not only sidesteps the black hole of partisan grandstanding, but as far as retailers have been traditionally concerned, it also avoids stepping on the increasingly sensitive toes of their consumers’ bases, regardless of which side of the aisle they fall on.

At least, that was the modus operandi for cautious brands up until the, ahem, ‘historic’ 2016 campaign season. And with fevers running higher than ever, one brand is taking a very profitable political stand.

Fortune first broke the story last month of Urban Outfitter’s foray into politically branded apparel, and one design in particular – a social-media inspired “IDK NOT TRUMP THO 2016” T-shirt – has been selling like ideological hotcakes. Urban Outfitter’s initial stock of 300 shirts sold out within 24 hours after going on sale, which prompted orders of thousands more.

And with that, the political product machine took off. Urban Outfitters has since started offering a range of items parodying the Republican nominee and his stances. The colorful cast includes a “Little Red Book”-like collection of the nominee’s quotes, pins with altered campaign slogans and more.

It might seem like Urban Outfitters is going out on a bit of a limb, but as Thomas Rankin, founder and CEO of social media analytics firm Dash Hudson, explained to Glossy, it’s better to think of their sudden political yearnings as a calculated risk.

“Generally, the best brands want to be part of movements that their customers care about,” Rankin said. “This helps them align the brand with current beliefs, deepening the connection. “Urban Outfitters knows that its customer would not generally be a Trump supporter. Further, any timely brand or product relationship with a celebrity tends to drive discussion and engagement around the brand.”

It’s one thing for Urban Outfitters (and any other enterprising brands out there) to offer products they think will appeal to the sensibilities of their main consumer demographics – that’s just good business. The issue lies in which retailers have built the cultural cache with their shoppers to engage in this kind of uppity and unexpected fashion.

For Urban Outfitters, a brand that operates on that level day in and day out regardless of the political leanings of their products, this is a chasm more easily leapt across. However, other, more cautious brands that get wide-eyed with all the attention and revenue politically inspired retailing can generate best consider whether the immediate benefits are strong enough to outweigh the potential backlash down the road.

“For ‘mainstream’ retailers this is always a great way to cause a stir among shoppers, if you have too large of a promotion/display of this stuff,” Ralph Jacobson, global retail industry analytics marketing executive at IBM, told RetailWire. “A few shirts offered under the radar is fine. Edgy retailers can do this all day long. However, it’s a risk that may not have that much of an upside potential.”

It’s certainly a dilemma for retailers in search of new ways to drum up revenue, but leveraging their relationships with consumers for profits of a political climate sets a dangerous precedent. Politics, as is known, can change with the wind, and when it takes months and years to develop and execute a proper product campaign, brands that put their reputations at the mercy of consumers’ justifiably shifting ideological sensibilities risk ending up on the wrong side of history just as much as they do the right.

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