Last week, we wrote about the opportunity for advertising agencies to coach smaller clients in the brand risks of entering the political fray with opinions and social media activism. Ad agency and PR partners are in a good position to offer wise counsel, media relations training, and other planned responses for brands who stumble into activism and draw the fire of an angry public and, more dangerously, their possibly politically-opposed customers.
Agencies also can help small businesses that prefer to express their personal and professional values as one and the same. While we strongly believe businesses should take care in putting their brands in the middle of political or societal debates, some brands have successfully done so, because they understand the issues they are commenting on and supporting, and they know the mass of their customers align with the brand’s values and stances.
Messaging for such organizations will be different from the communications of small businesses that inadvertently become political targets. Offer to help activist brands craft messaging to respond in certain circumstances, and provide advice on how to enlist community support around the brand’s activist stance. This effort could lead to some brand audit and positioning assignments; business owners need to understand their brand values to accurately assess the risk of politicizing their brands.
Here’s food for thought—research suggests there is more risk than reward for social/political brand stances. The 4A’s and research partner SSRS found that 58 percent of consumers don’t like it when brands take political or social stances. But delving deeper, consumers expressed they would be less likely to purchase products from brands that were perceived as racist (72%), or anti-LGBTQ (50%)
4A’s CMO Alison Fahey advised brands to ask three key questions before plunging into social or political activism:
- Do you have credibility in this space or about this issue?
- Does the position you want to take align with the core values of your company or brand?
- Is the messaging authentic?
The flip side of the research coin found that brand reputation and political/social stances are tightly wrapped together for certain consumer groups. The Harris Poll released its Reputation of America’s 100 Most Visible Companies in February 2017. It found that conservative/right-leaning consumers favored companies that openly espoused conservative views (Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A led that list); among liberals, Target topped the list for its LGBTQ position. Harris pointed out that Millennials, who will account for 75% of the US workforce (i.e., people with purchase power) by 2020, care strongly about brand values.
This competing research does nothing to help business owners determine how, or if, they should align with customer values. Reality check: in our divisive political climate, businesses may be forced to take stands on issues that they would prefer not to step into. With that new activist stance comes a higher risk that at least some customers will respond negatively. While big brands make big targets, but can usually absorb a negative social media outcry without major damage, small brands can be severely harmed because of their smaller markets and more limited customer bases.
It’s not just your clients…
Agency owners, be aware that your own employees and managers may be tempted to express personal political views that could impact on your and your agency’s business reputation and relationships. Conduct an in-house survey about brand values, and discuss how to express your views in agency media channels vs. personal media channels. Employees need to recognize that their personal brands may differ somewhat from the agency’s brand values, and they should be aware of consequences to the agency and its relationships if they express those views too strongly. Make sure you advise think-before-you-post, and not self-censorship; employees may feel they are being asked to alter their personal brands to your order, which could lead to legal issues. It’s also helpful to ask employees to clearly state in social media profiles that their “opinions are their own.” This simple statement is often sufficient cover for the agency not to be blamed if a client raises any issues.
A diversity of viewpoints is a good thing for creative organizations since it reflects the diversity of audiences at which your marketing is aimed. But your culture must encourage respect for differing points of view, or chaos—and potential damage to the agency brand—can ensue. Weigh the business risks of the agency taking a stand on political and social issues. And agency owners: remember to think carefully about how you express your own views, especially when out in the community or with clients and prospects. People have become very testy about politics, and you never know when you might touch a nerve and create a communication crisis. Even big brands’ leaders have generated firestorms of negative press by ignoring how quickly a single comment pulled out of context can blow up on social media. Leaders must also remember that, as business leaders, what they say is nearly inseparable from perceptions of what the entire brand “stands for.”
In the end, activist brands must weigh risks against values, and accept possible brand consequences for their choices. Teach local small business owners how to know what they stand for, and what they’re willing to have their business stand for publicly. They may not be the same thing. Either way, the escalating risk environment requires brands, and their agencies, to plan for possible crises arising from our national political tensions.
Be chill, or be prepared… better yet, be both.