If the perplexed social media team at Yorkshire Tea who spent much of their weekend responding to criticism that they make “Tory tea” after the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, posed making a cup, they can look for sympathy to their fellow brand managers – who have often been caught in the maelstrom of an unwelcome political endorsement.
The most common controversies are those involving musicians, who are often allergic to the idea that a politician they detest might use their songs. REM’s bassist, Mike Mills, tweeted earlier this year that the band were exploring legal action to prevent the US president, Donald Trump, from using their music at his rallies and calling him a fraud and a conman.
Johnny Marr went further – and, after hearing that David Cameron was a fan, tweeted to the then PM that he was forbidden to like The Smiths any more.
But it’s not just artists who have to deal with the fallout of a political endorsement. This time last year, the newly formed Independent Group for Change had a launch lunch in Nando’s. A photo of the group’s first outing was tweeted by Chuka Umunna to much furore on Twitter, and enthusiastic criticism of the politicians’ food choices.
Gavin Shuker, who was the MP for Luton South from 2010 to 2019, also tweeted about the meal out, writing: “Hacks struggling for an angle on how best to report the kremlinology of the group be aware I kept a list of medium, lemon and herb, extra hot and my DMs are open.”
Matt Navarra, a social media industry commentator, said there are people who make careers from being hated and offering polarising views.
“For brands you have to be careful around things like, would it be seen to be leveraging a situation that is quite serious and maybe has negative implications, is that a good thing? Also being aware about the level of audiences for that person and what responding or engaging may lead to,” he said.
Navarra added that engaging with someone who has quite aggressive followers could lead to a “a headache as they may bring an army of trolls with them”.
“For mainstream celebs or political figures where there is room for mocking in a not too critical way … a lot of brands can get things out of it [engaging with their brand]. Some may have a strategy in place.”
For politicians, using brands can be a good strategy as it feels more familiar and colloquial, Navarra said. He flags the case of Labour and KFC, when the Conservatives tweeted the chicken brand saying: “Hey @KFC_UKI, we’ve found an even bigger chicken than you,” attaching an image of Corbyn in a chicken suit to KFC. The food brand, however, was not having any of it, with a quick retort.
“KFC came off better than politicians but for them it also brought them into the centre for people’s minds around that topic,” Navarra said.
The phenomenon with politicians can also happen in reverse – when a brand thinks they’ve done a great bit of advertising, then realise it may have backfired badly. That happened to Heck Sausages during the 2019 Conservative leadership election campaign, when it must have seemed like a publicity coup to have the potential future prime minister visit its sausage factory en route to leadership hustings in York.
As well as the usual pictures on the factory floor, Heck had produced some specially branded “Boris bangers” in a packet complete with branding and a distinctive shock of blond hair. The backlash was immediate. #BoycottHeck began trending on social media and the company was enveloped in a full-blown PR crisis – ultimately issuing a statement to clarify that the company had no political affiliation “and didn’t mean to cause offence or upset anyone”. If only the chancellor had been around to offer them a soothing brew.