The Business of Political Conversations

Heineken brought together six people with opposing views on feminism, climate change and transgender identity who assembled a table, met face to face and found a measure of common ground.

Heineken brought together six people with opposing views on feminism, climate change and transgender identity who assembled a table, met face to face and found a measure of common ground.

Arguments continue to rage over whether or not corporations should enter the political fray. There are ample examples, such as the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, that show the perils. But the latest "Worlds Apart" ad from Heineken shows how it can be done successfully – and usefully.

While the Pepsi ad featuring Jenner joining a protect and then handing a Pepsi to a police officer seems disingenuous, the Heineken-sponsored encounter of non-actors with radically different views on feminism, climate change, and sexual identity is more genuine. The Pepsi ad more closely resembled a sappy musical as opposed to the Heineken ad that comes across like a mini-documentary. The Jenner ad is the cutting room floor while the Heineken ad went viral on YouTube.

The Pepsi ad’s subtext is that the world’s problems could be solved if we shared a soft drink. The Heineken ad’s premise is that we can see the world differently over a beer when we engage with people with different views. Simple acts of kindness, such as sharing a soft drink, can ease tense situations but are unlikely to change anyone's mind, let alone end racism. 

However, there is evidence to support the notion that talking face-to-face over a table while sipping a brewski can produce view-altering perspectives. As shown in the ad, the man who questioned the legitimacy of someone being transgender ends up admitting the world of black and white may have a lot more gray in it that he recognized.

Heineken promotes its light beer with lighter TV commercials featuring comic and prankster Neil Patrick Harris. The beer maker also has used the Academy Award winning, sleep-eyed actor Benicio del Toro as a spokesman. In one ad, giddy American tourists confuse him with Antonio Banderas. This is what you normally expect from beer ads.

Brands are feeling pressure to be more relevant and do more than spit out feel-good ads. They are being encouraged to enter the political conversation. Everyone knows this is dangerous territory, for a big national brand or for a smaller local one. You can become an instantaneous cocktail party joke or turn some heads with a compelling story.

The Heineken “Worlds Apart” ad has drawn its share of cynicism, but it nevertheless provides some useful guidance for brands dipping their toes into these troubled waters:

  • Make the connection between your brand and your story believable. People can have candid conversations while sharing a beer. The familiarity of a common table allows people with opposing views to establish rapport, talk and engage.
  • Don’t expect to make everyone happy or to love you. They may not even buy your product. The objective is to gain awareness and respect by contributing more than foam to the river of conversation about issues that matter.
  • Avoid awkward or phony staging. Virtually all commercials are staged, so the secret is to make them not appear staged or to use the staging to advantage. Heineken made staging part of the story – participants assembled the table where they met and talked. It conveyed a sense of teamwork before the big reveal that sparked the actual conversations.
  • Think carefully about the point you want to make. The last thing you want is to resemble an unwanted intruder in a conversation about a serious. Heineken took on flash point issues but put the emphasis on the transformative value of talking about them with people of differing viewpoints.
  • Have a strategy, not just a one-off idea for a creative ad. Not every ad has to be political, but your loyal customers – and your fierce detractors – will be watching where you stand your ground. You need to be true to your brand promise and firm on your political positioning. 

Navigating the choppy seas of politically charged conversations is not just a skill to be mastered by big brands. Increasingly, all businesses are being asked to step out of the shadows and into the hot heat of public discussion. For many businesses, this is uncomfortable and even out of character. However, the price of being in business today is being part of the solution.