Conservative companies create parallel economy as polarization thrives

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As a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates jockeyed for standout moments at the second GOP primary debate last month, more than 1 million viewers tuned in to the alternative video-sharing platform Rumble to watch.

Rumble, a YouTube rival popular among conservatives, served as the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) exclusive livestream provider and “online home” for the debate while traditional cable viewers tuned in on Fox Business or Univision.

Backed by billionaire GOP donor Peter Thiel and Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), the platform is home to podcasts from popular conservative figures like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump Jr. and has inked deals with Truth Social, former President Trump’s social media company.

During commercial breaks on debate night, Rumble carried advertisements for its sponsors, like Black Rifle Coffee and Birch Gold Group, which also largely cater to conservatives.

Black Rifle Coffee, a coffee company known for its pro-gun and pro-police stance, sells bags of “AK-47 Espresso” and “Thin Blue Line Roast,” while Birch Gold Group touts an endorsement from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and a partnership with former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

As a growing number of businesses lean into their conservative values or credentials to appeal to consumers, some have suggested that a “parallel economy” is emerging.

<em><sub>From left, former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former Vice President Mike Pence attend the second Republican presidential primary debate Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images</sub></em>

Brands catering to conservatives are booming

“As more and more competition comes in and gets fiercer and fiercer in this world where [we have] what we as marketers refer to as the attentional deficit economy, it’s hard to stand out,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

“One way brands, products, services, organizations now stand out is to build a little bit of this ideological DNA into their argument for why you should become one of their customers,” he added.

Christian conservative wireless provider Patriot Mobile, for instance, encourages potential customers to sign up on their website, emphasizing they are “joining the fight and helping to fund organizations that defend your God-given constitutional rights and freedoms.”

“Patriot Mobile is thrilled to help create a Red Economy, providing a marketplace for conservatives with Judeo Christian values who want to spend their hard-earned dollars with those that align with their core values,” Leigh Wambsganss, Patriot Mobile’s chief communications officer, said in a statement.

The Right Stuff, a conservative dating app, positions itself as an alternative to other apps that have “gone woke” and a place where people can “discover other conservatives.”

“Legacy dating apps have allowed left wing culture to ruin romance. Products are better when they’re not woke,” the app’s founder, John McEntee, said in a statement to The Hill. “The Right Stuff is proud to offer people a traditional dating experience with a superior user base.”

PublicSq., which has been described as an “anti-woke” marketplace akin to Amazon, requires businesses to agree to its “pro-life, pro-family, pro-freedom” values and runs a blog featuring posts about conservative swaps for “woke” brands like Patagonia and Barnes & Noble.

Rumble, Black Rifle Coffee, Birch Gold Group and PublicSq. did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment.

Political identity is driving shoppers’ choices

These political appeals have become increasingly important to American consumers amid growing political polarization, said Nailya Ordabayeva, a business administration professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

“That’s naturally making people’s political beliefs more salient and more instrumental in the areas, decisions that impact their voting behavior in the political domain, as well as the everyday behaviors that do not have much to do with politics,” she said.

As consumers’ politics have influenced their purchasing decisions, companies have sought to tap into these political identities, and these efforts are not unique to the right, Ordabayeva added.

Starbucks vowed to hire 10,000 refugees over five years in 2017 in protest of Trump’s executive order banning refugees from several Muslim-majority countries.

Nike similarly jumped into the political arena in 2018 when it made Colin Kaepernick the face of its “Just Do It” campaign. Kaepernick, who was then a member of the San Francisco 49ers, drew widespread conservative backlash for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racism and police brutality.

“Whereas, I think, early on, a lot of this was happening on the left side of the spectrum — where there have been many brands trying to speak to liberal values, etc. — it’s also happening more recently on the conservative side of the spectrum as well,” Ordabayeva said.

Right-wing sellers are a reaction to more politically active corporations

The prevalence of companies espousing liberal values appears to have helped fuel a “predictable” counter-reaction on the right, Reed said.

The trend on both sides of the spectrum marks a divergence from earlier views on politics and business, said Nooshin Warren, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

“It wasn’t something that firms would tap into,” Warren told The Hill. “It was very, almost frowned upon by the investors, by the stakeholders for a firm to get involved in political issues. They always would say to keep business away from politics.”

In a cultural moment emblematic of this traditional wisdom, basketball star Michael Jordan once declined to endorse a North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate, reportedly saying, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

Reed said the companies targeting political ideologies today are essentially acknowledging they will forgo half of the market in favor of a more loyal customer base.

“The premise is that the people you connect with will be more loyal,” he said. “And they may buy more, and they may defend you, and they may talk positive about you and spread word of mouth for you and do your marketing for free for you.”

While marketing to certain political views can secure a loyal customer base, Ordabayeva noted that it’s also “risky” for companies to make it their sole focus.

“I don’t think that anybody will say it’s a necessarily a winning strategy to focus solely on the political positioning for these brands because that leaves you at the mercy of the political discourse, which can be very unpredictable sometimes,” she said.

Reed similarly suggested it’s unclear how salient these political stances will continue to be for consumers going forward.

“It remains to be seen how deeply internalized these viewpoints are for the right-wing conservative consumers … how strong this is inside of them and how impervious this is to other external factors that might come up, such as the economy,” he said.

“What happens when there’s no additional intense radioactive oxygen that’s coming from the political world that’s feeding all of this?” Reed added.

A drive to vote with their wallet may be waning for some

Even as polarization remains high, some Americans are growing tired of politics. A Pew Research Center study released last month found 65 percent of Americans reported feeling often or always exhausted when thinking about politics.

Neil Saunders, the managing director of GlobalData Retail, noted consumers of all political persuasions are feeling weary of politics — a factor some brands, particularly more mainstream ones, may take into account when wading into politics.

“There’s so much divisiveness, there’s so many arguments and debates, that I think people are just becoming a bit tired of brands trying to show some credentials in some way or another,” Saunders said.

Some 41 percent of Americans in a recent Bentley University-Gallup poll said they support businesses weighing in on current events. While this number remains relatively high, it has ticked down 7 points since last year.

Another recent poll from the Public Affairs Council (PAC) found support for corporate efforts to engage politically has dipped, falling from 66 percent in 2022 to 57 percent in 2023.

However, Ordabayeva said it doesn’t seem like this phenomenon of political-driven marketing is going away any time soon.

“As long as the political discourse continues to be divided, it might seem like an appealing strategy,” she said. “But it is fraught with risks of its own. And so, brands have to be really careful when they choose that as their main value proposition.”

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