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Brands Taking a Stand: The Profit of Political Email Marketing

Once upon a time, it wasn’t polite to discuss politics and money. Many of us have strayed from that convention in recent years, but holy schmoley, Penzeys Spices blew the lid right off the polite conversation spice jar with their wildly frank July 3rd newsletter.

It wasn’t the first time that Penzeys Spices took a bold position. Since the company was founded in 1986, CEO Bill Penzey has made it a point to share his personal point of view on a wide range of social and political issues by way of company marketing.

On November 9, 2016—one day after the United States presidential election—Penzey circulated a scathing statement on Donald Trump and his supporters to his company’s newsletter list.

The message went viral and made national headlines. Customers and prospects on both sides of the political divide took note—some vowing to boycott, while others stocked up their spice racks.

And Bill Penzey and the company he founded instantly registered on the radars of millions of Americans who weren’t otherwise familiar with the specialty retailer.

So what was different about last week’s Independence Day email?

In a surprisingly transparent move, Penzey revealed insights on the profit his political screeds produced.

Political Email Marketing on the Rise

Brands have long touted warm-and-fuzzy values and aligned themselves with feel-good causes, but most shied away from straight-up activism. Now the trend of political email marketing is gaining traction.

A couple of weeks before the Fourth of July, I presented a webinar on loyalty and omni-channel campaigns. One of the high-level points was the importance of brand authenticity, and I touched on the growing trend of consumer-facing companies drawing some real lines in the sand when it comes to politically and socially charged issues.

During the session, I shared a couple of examples of political email marketing in this vein: REI’s response to an executive review of 27 national monuments, and Under Armour’s support of inclusivity during Pride Month.

Under Armour political email marketing screenshot

Under Armour supports inclusivity with this email during Pride Month.

Why would brands adopt potentially polarizing points of view? According to Sprout Social, 66% of us want brands to take positions, and, as indicated by the Earned Brand Study from Edelman’s, 57% of us will buy or boycott a brand over its position on an issue.

As I researched this trend, though, what was missing were examples of major brands promoting a decidedly conservative position by way of political email marketing. I came up short-handed on right-leaning examples while planning for that loyalty webinar.

So following the Penzeys Spices message, I reviewed the Independence Day-themed email campaigns of three top brands known for their conservative politics: Papa John’s Pizza, Chick-fil-A, and Hobby Lobby.

What did I find? Just business as usual. ­­

Papa John's political email marketing screenshot

Papa John’s celebrates Independence Day with this 40%-off email promotion.

Papa John’s served up a 40%-off holiday deal on the big day. In late June, Chick-fil-A recommended the “founding flavors” of their chicken nuggets for Independence Day celebrations. And in mid-June, Hobby Lobby promoted 30%-off July 4th home decor.

Nary a hint of any political opinions in their email marketing.

It’s worth noting that Hobby Lobby placed their annual Independence Day newspaper advertisement. The company also places full-page ads on Easter and Christmas—a corporate tradition since 1997—that promote the founder’s religious beliefs and, more recently, a mobile Christian bible download. Which, perhaps, is an unusual call-to-action choice for an offline ad.

Hobby Lobby political email marketing screenshot

Hobby Lobby avoids politics in its 4th of July email campaign.

Hobby Lobby didn’t eschew all digital channels with its pro-Christian stance. Both Penzeys Spices and Hobby Lobby featured a version of their Independence Day messages on their Facebook pages—with the Penzey’s post garnering more than double the reactions and 23% more shares by the following Monday.

So, How Much Does It Pay to be Political?

Bill Penzey’s recap of his company’s year-over-year profits is fascinating. In an email with the subject line, “This is what democracy looks like,” Penzey explains a direct correlation between his most controversial marketing messages and big boosts in profits.

Penzeys Spices political email marketing screenshot

Penzeys Spices reveals record-breaking profits from its political email marketing.

Penzey says his company has realized 98% growth in 2018 compared to 2017, mostly owed to a pair of offers that were tied to strong criticisms of the Trump administration. The most successful campaign—an 18-hour flash offer—produced an 80x (yes, EIGHTY!) lift in sales compared to the same period the previous year.

Penzeys’ Independence Day email also offers this advice for those of us in the marketing biz:

“If you are a marketer, please be aware that the times are changing. Maybe it’s time to stop saying young people can’t be reached and instead try to get your clients to look into the values young people demand. At some point, some breakfast cereal maker is going to celebrate the bravery of Colin Kaepernick by putting him taking a knee on the cover of their box. In that moment they will lose a third of their customers over 55 for what I imagine might be another year or two. In that moment they will win all of the younger generations for all of the rest of their lives.”

I haven’t earned my stripes as a political pundit, so I won’t dive too deeply into theories on why Republican-led companies don’t seem to be following this formula for political email marketing. But here’s what I’ve observed: Conservative companies are, well, conservative about their positioning. They’re sticking to the convention of keeping politics separate from business, and in some instances, backpedaling after revealing right-leaning positions.

Chick-fil-A, in particular, has expressed regret for stepping into the gay marriage debate in 2012. It’s true that the company encountered backlash when CEO Dan Cathy made controversial comments on “biblical marriage;” however, Chick-fil-A fans and evangelical Christians countered protests with an outpouring of support. The company continued achieving growth, seemingly unhindered by the brouhaha, but is still steering clear of hot-button issues going forward.

Bill Penzey, meanwhile, has no fear of losing customers. And, with his Independence Day newsletter, he’s revealed just how much there is to gain by mixing a dash of politics into a recipe for business.

Jen Capstraw

Jen Capstraw is a strategist, speaker, writer and #emailgeek. In addition to her role as Director of Strategic Insights and Evangelism at Iterable, Jen is Co-Founder and President of Women of Email, an association of 2,000+ aimed at promoting leadership and cultivating professional growth among women in the email space.

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