Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democratic candidates are taking shots at big companies on the campaign trail, testing which messages resonate with voters and creating adversaries out of legacy companies that don't have much political wiggle room to fight back.

Why it matters: There's more pressure on companies to stand for social policies today than ever before. But unlike candidates, brands risk losing trust if they hit back too hard on certain issues, which is why they tend to respond more slowly. More progressive candidates are taking advantage of that dynamic this cycle.

Driving the news: Certain companies are more likely to wind up in the crosshairs of a campaign battle due to their proximity to hot-button issues, according to data pulled for Axios by the social intelligence firm Zignal Labs.

  • The companies most likely to be called out are the ones facing criticism over the minimum wage, jobs, taxes and competition — like Walmart and the big tech companies.
  • And candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are more likely to call out those companies, having racked up the most engagement online since February when calling out a specific corporation.

Walmart, the country's largest employer, has been a major target of Democratic ire on the trail, and has received more engagements around social media mentions of the company by Democrats candidates than any other major retailer.

  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders created a petition to solicit donations that asked supporters to 'Tell Walmart to pay their workers a living wage."
  • Since February, Sanders picked up more engagement around social mentions of "Walmart" than any other candidate, according to the data.

McDonald's, which has also come under fire in recent months due to its minimum wage policies, has received a lot of attention around social mentions of the company by Sanders and other candidates, including Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.

  • Engagements around Booker's social posts about McDonald's jumped last month when he joined a McDonald's union protest on the campaign trail in South Carolina.

Google, Facebook and Amazon have been under attack for months by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who launched her campaign with a proposal to break those companies up.

  • Since then, several candidates have echoed her sentiments, publicly saying companies like Google and Facebook should be broken up.
  • Most recently, Kamala Harris, Sanders and Warren have used Amazon Prime Day as an opportunity to call out Amazon.

Be smart: Some issues that are gaining lots of momentum on the campaign trail aren't always resulting in major companies getting called out.

  • The pharmaceutical industry, for example, has been cited recently by Joe Biden, Sanders, Harris, Booker and others, but those candidates don't usually call out specific drug companies.
  • Warren has been one exception, denouncing the family behind the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma on the trail. O'Rourke, who called out Purdue during the first Democratic debate, has been another.

The big picture: The campaign trail is typically a tricky place for brands to be, because brands are not designed to counter attacks as quickly as politicians or political groups.

  • "Generally, the problem with incumbent brands is that they never respond to attacks. They need to decide now if that strategy works during this political season or if they should start to fight back," says Mark Penn, president of advertising holding company The Stagwell Group and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
  • "In politics, incumbents get ahead of challenges by defining them. In commerce, not so much."

The bottom line: "Companies face a challenge like never before this cycle, because they are getting brought into the campaign in ways that have the potential to greatly impact their bottom line," said Zignal Labs CEO Josh Ginsberg.

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