By Manu Meel
What explains the rise of the Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC), Nike signing Colin Kaepernick, and AT&T supporting One America News? Each of these companies had an incentive to exploit the polarized attitudes of American consumers.
In an age where everything is political, Americans’ consumption patterns are certainly not left untouched. And companies recognize this politicization of consumer behavior. After all, the north star of the private sector is maximizing profit and shareholder value. And maximizing profit involves understanding how to best market to potential customers. More importantly, maximizing profit also involves keeping the company relevant in the eyes of the next generation.
Looking more closely at the BRCC, Nike, and AT&T as case studies, it is clear that each company’s strategy, to an extent, is driven by seizing market opportunity. We can certainly debate how much political pandering factors into decision making, but it is without question that pandering to politics drives business and deeper consumer engagement.
BRCC has become the most prominent conservative coffee business, and it presents itself as an alternative to Starbucks’ left leaning politics. I admire BRCC’s focus on veterans, but it is evident that their appeal and growing market share is also a result of their messaging to a conservative audience. From weapon branded coffee flavors to hiring 10,000 veterans after Starbucks hired 10,000 refugees, BRCC has engaged in a creative branding campaign that taps into the conservative beliefs of many Americans.
While BRCC represents a conservative case study, Nike’s signing of Colin Kaepernick to an endorsement deal is an example of a company exploiting left leaning politics. When signing Mr. Kaepernick, I am sure Nike’s leadership had motivations beyond profit. But it is notable that since the signing, Nike’s shares have jumped 62% from $80 per share pre-signing to $130 per share post-signing. Of course there are other factors involved in Nike’s shares increasing, but signaling to a left-leaning consumer base about it’s companies values certainly played a role in increased consumer confidence.
Finally, a recent Reuters special report broke the story about how AT&T helped build the far-right news network, One America News (OAN). OAN founder Robert Herring has testified that the idea for OAN news came from AT&T executives after they realized they wanted “a conservative network.” It’s notable that AT&T also owns HBO and CNN, which are perceived as catering to a left leaning audience. If AT&T’s investment in OAN is not an example of a company recognizing the various political viewpoints that they must pander to, then I do not know what is.
BRCC, Nike, and AT&T are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to companies exploiting consumers’ political attitudes for profit. We saw similar examples of companies taking political stands with the introduction of the Georgia voting laws earlier this year.
Now some may argue that companies exploiting consumer political attitudes is no different than companies exploiting other aspects of consumer behavior, such as the growing trend towards health-conscious eating. However, the polarization that we see confined to politics and media will only further engulf the private sector if this continues.
Imagine a world in which you have banks that serve only conservative customers and banks that serve only liberal customers. Or a world in which pharmaceutical companies cater to right-wing beliefs and pharmaceutical companies that espouse left-leaning beliefs. We are already seeing this with conservative social media. Companies like Parler are on the rise because consumers believe the current social media giants have a liberal bias.
In other words, what currently seems like a natural free-market tendency to capture maximum profit by catering to consumers’ political beliefs may turn into another wedge that divides American society. We already have Americans confined to their media bubbles. We don’t need Americans also confined to their own purchasing bubbles.
If we want to rescue American democracy from the grip of polarization, we have to recognize the reality that many businesses face. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle where a more polarized citizenry leads to more political business strategy, which reinforces peoples’ bubbles because their purchasing decisions become one more political battleground to fight on.
Therefore, the solution to the politicization of business is the same as the solution to the politicization of our individual beliefs. We must break the fever that is polarization by getting Americans to extend beyond their ideological bubbles. To get Americans to not see every political argument as existential. To help them divorce their consumer behaviors from their political attitudes. Yes, everything is politics. But right now, we all need a break.