As part of our Spotlight US series on Marketing in a Polarized Nation, we talked to the person perhaps best positioned to translate the election’s outcome into what it means for brands – Mark Penn – who for decades has been one of the leading political pollsters and strategists. He has worked on campaigns for President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mark also has substantial credentials in the advertising business. He is currently president and managing partner of The Stagwell Group and chairman and CEO of US agency holding company MDC Partners. (Stagwell and MDC announced merger plans late last year.) US commissioning editor Cathy Taylor talked with Mark in December about what the election really says about Americans, and how brands can stay true to their mission and purpose in reaching a polarized nation.

This article is part of the January 2021 US Spotlight series, “Marketing in a polarized nation.” Read more

Some topline insights:

  • With the U.S. electorate being 24% liberal, 38% moderate, and 38% conservative, the pandemic underscored that the country is slightly more moderate and conservative than most of the models portrayed.
  • Many surveys are actually driving an agenda, and they end up obscuring how complex public opinion actually is; marketers need to avoid getting caught up in them and to remember to analyze societal issues from both sides.
  • If brands choose to get involved in deep political issues they should hire political consultants, but their first priority should be delivering on brand promises, which gives them more leeway to deal with other issues.
  • Brands’ reliable performances during the pandemic added to the sense that people have more confidence in companies, less confidence in government.

WARC: What does the recently completed presidential election say about us as Americans to you?

Mark Penn: … I think that at the end of the day, the election reinforced that we live in a more moderate country, slightly more moderate and conservative than most of the models and the questioning really portrayed. And that in the end, while turnout was incredibly high, on both sides, it was, as I've identified, moderate men who actually swung the election … and that little segment of the electorate that switched was actually what changed it from one candidate to another, because other than that, the tally was actually quite similar to what it was last time in many of the groups.

Did any of the outcomes surprise you? A lot of people did not come away thinking we’re moderate.

I've been trying to fight the impression that people get from mostly the media and what they read and online media. I like to say now that we're one country divided by two parties, and in the sense that within each party, a majority, say, of the members of the Democratic Party are liberal and so they drive the party somewhat more to the left. The majority of the members of the Republican Party are conservative. They drive the party somewhat right, when in fact the country is 24%, liberal, 38% moderate, 38%. conservative. I think a lot of the storylines that are written kind of miss exactly where America is.

Should that make CMOs a little nervous about the state of polling and market research, that despite people trying to correct for 2016 in this election, it really didn't happen for the most part?

Well, that's right. I don't think a lot of the polls corrected themselves. If you think about it, the midterms were really at about a seven-point Democratic advantage. If it turned out that it's only a four-point democratic advantage as it really turned out in this election, then you would have expected Congress to shrink, and not a single analyst predicted that even though it's an obvious result from a close election. Other polls – say The Wall Street Journal, I think, or NBC – were way out at 12 points. Twelve points would have been a Democratic landslide, and it also would have been a 40-state win, which anyone looking at the state polls would have known is impossible.

So, in reality, this race was somewhere between three and eight as boundaries if anybody gave it any real thought. And the problem is people don't give things real thought. What they do is they take kind of surface impressions of polls. …

The other thing that I think is really important for marketers, is that you have to analyze problems and issues from both sides. So, for example, if I ran a [survey] question, “Don't you think that your corporation should do more social good?” Who is going to answer ‘no’ to that? It's a tautology, right? … I ask a question, “Do you think companies should focus more on how they can do social good, or explain more about the benefits of their products?” [The answer to] that question comes out,” Explain the benefits of their products.” … Most of the time, when you see the question, people are driving an agenda, rather than trying to give you public opinion, which particularly in America is very complex, because Americans will agree to completely contradictory statements, because public opinion is complex. [It] involves a whole series of variables that sometimes gets resolved in a vote, or a purchase or an action, , but they're rarely uni-dimensional. And most analysis that you see is shockingly uni-dimensional.

Should brands get involved in political issues?

I think no brand should get involved in deep political issues without having political consultants alongside their marketing consultants. The major mistake I see is letting pure marketing consultants, who don't have experience in politics, make decisions or recommendations about issues like this. Because when you go from [talking about], “the qualities of my company and the products,” to now getting involved in social issues, you have to really understand what those political dynamics are. And, as I say, if you think marketing is tough, get into politics. Now try to manage marketing, and your product, your industry and the competition in it. And politics, right?

People are not clamoring, particularly after the election, to have [the companies they support] get involved in politics. That doesn't mean that they don't want companies to do more social good, be more sustainable, to help promote racial justice – of course they do. … But how you do it? That is very important, because you can take something and go in as someone who's going to bring the country together, and get a lot of applause for that. Or you can kind of bumble into a political issue, and get yourself in crossfire like you have never seen before, and that really can destroy a brand.

Do you think that brands hire political consultants enough?

Not as much as I think they should. And I again, I also think that they shouldn't be taken too easily into poll questions… I think a lot of what your brand should do also depends upon how your brand is doing. I always say that brands have basically two pedals that drive their image. One is the performance of their company and their product – customer service, quality features, prices – all those things. The other is citizenship – ethics, trust, involvement in the community and issues, right? And how are you doing? Where's your deficit? Are you trying to get involved in citizenship issues because your performance is lagging? Or do you have really great performance reviews, so you can get somewhat more involved in issues?

How do you address those issues, like diversity, that are seen as left-wing issues. How do brands navigate those waters, so to speak?

As President Clinton used to say, many things are what he would call false choices. So, it is not a question between supporting greater racial justice/inequality, and the opioid crisis. Do both. … Understand the issues that your customers are concerned about, and don't just take one set of issues. Try to cover the water here … And so as long as it seems like [a brand’s] approach is balanced, I think that they can contribute in this way and yet not kind of get written off or get as much in the political crossfire. I wouldn't say, “Hey, don't get involved in those things that you really are passionate [about].” I would never say that. But I would say, get in and get involved in a way that brings Democrats, Republicans, liberals, moderates and conservatives together and you can do it, right? It's actually what people really want.

What are your thoughts on the role of brands in society?

I think first and foremost, look at your brand and see if it's delivering on the promise that you set out to deliver, and don't expect issues to be a substitute for delivering on that promise. I think actually, during the pandemic, brands did incredibly well doing what they do best. Grocery stores stayed open, Amazon delivered. FedEx, UPS, the post office, Walmart, Purell, ,there were a lot of companies that people turned to. … Look to what it is that you're doing best. And are you getting that out, right? Because before you get the right to speak on social issues, you really have to earn that right, by being a great brand in the things that you do.

Do you have favorite brands in terms of how they've handled the last nine months through COVID, Black Lives Matter and the election?

… When it came to the pandemic, and relating to customers’ experiences, I think overall companies did very well. I think, again, as a result of the pandemic, people have more confidence in companies, less confidence in government. And I think they were surprised and we should all be surprised to the extent that people really turn to companies to deliver for them. After years and years, again, of what I call mostly misleading surveys, about how everything was deteriorating, nobody trusted companies – .none of that turned out to be true.

How should the people in charge of brands break out of their bubbles, which is made particularly hard during a pandemic?

… I think part of what you really do here is kind of analyze the country, and how it's changing and try to understand those trends. The biggest growth, Latino consumers and voters, that's clearly the biggest growth. They were there 2% in, say, 1992. And they were 13-14%, today? So are you really understanding the changes in diversity? Do you think that there were more younger, or older, voters? Actually, more older voters. We've actually tilted significantly older. We’re the oldest the country has ever been. And so you can't ignore those consumers as well. Obviously, there's been tremendous enhancement of the position of women generally, and the disposable income that they have, so you have three or four different trends going on. And obviously, the country has become more diverse, right? And again, if you look at the election, the percentage of white voters went down four points. But which groups went up? It was Latinos, Asians, others, right? It was a diversity of different and new races. So, what I say is, get a better understanding of what things are now. And the more you understand what things are now and what the trends are now, you'll do a much better job at catching the consumer the future.

Can a brand unite the country? Or brands?

Look, a brand can contribute to that. … it is possible to really stand for bringing people of different viewpoints together, to being a convener. And I think that the more people try to play the role of convener, Americans like that. They want, say activists from Black Lives Matter and the police to actually get together and talk about their problems and solve them, because if you ask the average American, they think there's a lot of racism with the police, and they think they need more police. … Don't be afraid to stand for unity because let people attack you for standing for unity. I'm fine with it. In the long run, you're not going to get in trouble.