Walking a Brand Tightrope: Be True to Your Values

It is tough to walk the tightrope between corporate social responsibility and the expectations of consumers in a politically divided nation. The once-dominant political views of mainstream moderates have been replaced by far-left and far-right views. So taking sides on any issue puts brands at odds with about half of current and potential consumers. That is why most brands aim to support less-politically-fraught causes, like cancer fund-raising or United Way.

Brands are now coping with post-2016 election fallout. Liberal activists have called for boycotts of Trump-related brands, and there is spillover onto other brands that ill-advisedly took sides during the campaign season—or just appeared to take sides. For example, a boycott list, created and shared by an individual named Shannon Coulter via Twitter at #GrabYourWallet, gained lots of traction via Huffington Post. Activists were invited to target retailers carrying Trump-related brands.

Elsewhere, brands that seemed to endorse the Trump campaign felt a different kind of heat. New Balance had to post rebuttals to accusations that the made-in-USA firm supported the President-elect’s more divisive stances… because a brand representative made a passing remark that seemed to compliment the Trump Administration to come. Worse for New Balance was a white nationalist group naming their product the “official shoe of white nationalism.”

Boycotts and Bad Publicity

Politically-themed boycotts are rarely effective. In many cases these result in supportive publicity for disdained brands. Boycotts tend to resonate within the echo-chamber of the source groups, but are ignored by the larger consumer nation. People simply buy what they want, regardless of what they may say on social media.

While left-wing calls for boycotts of a president-elect’s brands are a new development in politicized branding—and really, this is perhaps the first time there have been president-elect brands to boycott—there have been many conservative boycotts of left-wing positions by corporations or brands.

  • Target for allowing transgender people to use public restrooms they “identify as.”
  • A Cheerios backlash over an ad featuring a mixed-race family.
  • Threats to boycott Nabisco-Kraft Foods over an Oreos a rainbow-crème-filled cookie Tweet.

Speaking of Oreos, Heinz can attest to the sandwich-cookie-effect: first suffering conservative social media ire for airing a Deli Mayo ad showing two men kissing; then, when they withdrew the ad, a gay rights backlash boycott. Apparently, the only middle that now exists is a not-very-demilitarized zone for businesses and brands. The hunt for some sort of middle ground is fast becoming a quest on the scale of searching for the Holy Grail…

Why All Brands Should Be Wary

Issues-based activism aside, brands should stay attuned to the dangers of taking political sides. In the US and globally, politics and social issues stir emotional reactions… even among people who don’t express that disturbance via social media. Determine how much your clients are willing to stand behind the brand’s stated values. Is the values stance important enough to suffer a sales dip? Do they understand who their customers are and what values they support? Is the issue so important to brand advocates and employees that the company is willing to court a backlash in order to do what they believe is the right thing?

Agencies must guide clients to carefully weigh risks and benefits around brand activism, and help them make informed choices. Agencies should also help clients develop messaging strategies for those occasions when brand positions are challenged by social media-fueled backlash or boycotts. This is an agency opportunity to develop client crisis communications plans, train client spokespeople, and help devise response strategies for possible politicized situations. Some issues are worth standing up for; others may be brand quicksands with no hope of escape. Ad agencies and brand consultants can help clients understand when it is appropriate to give the brand a more political voice, and how to prepare for possible backlash—of their own or outside forces’ making.

Keep these brand tenets in mind:

  • Know your brand values.
  • Understand consumers’ brand expectations.
  • Avoid inserting personal political views into brand messaging.
  • Beware of political affiliations that could harm brand perceptions and stated values.
  • Exercise brand voice in support of causes that truly align with brand values—and can make a real difference.
  • Be respectful in conversations with consumers who disagree with brand values.
  • Prepare messaging and protocols for possible brand crises.
  • Be true to the brand.

Finally, steer clients to check with legal and PR counselors if they haven’t already looked into brand protection in an increasingly uncertain business environment. It isn’t just taking a stand on an issue or cause that can invite brand damage. Scott Farrell, president of Golin Corporate Communications, a crisis management specialist, told the New York Times that companies should ask before making any big moves, “What Would Trump Do?” In short, companies can now expect almost any corporate decision to be perceived as a “trigger” for an attack. Many brands are being advised to prepare by developing a playbook for responding to Trump tweets and accusations. Brands must be ready to defend in our “new normal.”

…And the Brands Played On

This month in politicized branding, Levi Strauss & Co. put their brand on the bad side of gun rights advocates by asking politely that gun owners not carry weapons into LS stores, following an incident where a gun-toting customer accidentally discharged his weapon. Trump tweets targeting specific brands had an impact on brand perceptions (see the Ford cancellation of a new plant in Mexico—a corporate decision due to many factors that had little to do with the president-elect’s tweets—which is being perceived as a direct result of that “intervention” in spite of Ford’s disclaiming corporate statements). Kellogg was targeted for withdrawing online ads from fake-news purveyor Breitbart News. And yet again, conservatives complained that Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups were not “Christmas-y enough.”

Welcome to the new America. I’ll conclude with a favorite movie quote. Brands, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”


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