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‘You’re Either With Me or Against Me’

'You're Either With Me or Against Me'

Russ Klein

torn American flag

A reflection on national unity from Russ Klein, CEO of the AMA

The summer 2021 edition of Marketing News features an article by Duke University’s Christine Moorman on the current disposition and mindsets of senior marketers across the country on the topic of national unity.

Moorman and her co-author, Duke MBA student Quinn Garber, uncover some profound takeaways on what is arguably one of the most important issues of our time. I will admit, I was shocked to read the findings, that a disproportionately low number of marketers have an inclination to use their brand resources and platforms to promote national unity among the population at large. 

Our country, our institutions, and our citizenry face a complex set of crosscurrents in the world today. 


Join Russ Klein, Christine Moorman, Philip Kotler and other thought leaders discuss the role of marketers in promoting national unity during a special “Marketers and National Unity” webcast, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. CST.

Several years ago, I wrote a blog titled “The Rise of Individualism” that examined the societal tension between individualism and collectivism. It was only a fantastic coincidence that the example I used then—vaccines—has become a real-life dispute as yet another test of the country’s unity in the constant balancing act between self-interest and the greater good. 

Later, I would write a blog titled “Make Yourself Useful” that clearly cut against trend, advising against positioning a brand around social issues where there are otherwise legitimate and divergent points of view. Why unnecessarily divide your addressable market into something smaller? The math alone makes the case. The opportunity to grow a brand is maximized when many different-minded people are brought together, who collectively can be satisfied by a powerful and unifying solution for something in their lives. It’s this orientation that allows products, services and platforms to become standards in our culture that serve everyone. 

It is antithetical to me that we have properly placed such an emphasis on inclusion when many brand owners are telling us, “But not you, if you don’t agree with our social views.” I quickly added that my position must not be mistaken or perverted to imply a firm doesn’t need a moral center and duty to comport themselves according to universal values of decency. I went on to say that social impact is not a strategy, it is a responsibility— unless your organization was born from it or is expressly a social agency devoted to it. For brands and corporate citizens, the calculus is different. Social impact is a moral imperative, not a marketing plan. Solving a relevant problem or inventing a new source of enjoyment, comfort, satisfaction or solution is purposeful. And yes, just being useful in such a way ought to be religion enough. 

The 2021 Parlin Award winner, J. Walker Smith, made a compelling case as to the important distinction between purpose and politics in the June 2017 edition of Marketing News in an article titled, “Brands with Purpose. Not Politics.” 

I see the findings in Moorman’s article to be a troubling signal that we are at risk of free-falling deeper into a world where the crosscurrents of individualism vis-a-vis collectivism are being convoluted further by the tension between broadly positioned inclusive brands and tribal brands (distinguished by their “You’re either for me or against me” social stands, often on issues for which there are legitimate alternative points of view). 

The result is an irreducible Gordian Knot that represents a “bow” on division. 

Has the American culture lost its self-awareness and negative capacity, meaning they could be wrong and certainly others may see the same thing differently? Are we all experiencing a real world “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which cooperation and unity has been devalued? (The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.) 

All the same, Moorman and Garber’s article is important, and I hope it inspires more intellectual curiosity and additional research that impacts and advances both marketing theory and practice. 

Our job at the AMA and, I believe, our responsibility as a discipline of both science and art, is to raise important and managerially relevant issues for marketers that in turn throw light on the intersection between marketing and public policy. Whatever you think about this perspective, you’re welcome at the AMA.

Russ Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr. Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group. He is also the former CEO of the American Marketing Association.