When Brands Play Politics
By Lili Swanson and Ariel Carpenter
August 13, 2019
How the belief-driven buyer concept is the latest marketing trend to go mainstream.
Consumer pressure is forcing businesses to become political advocates, even though historically, brands have steered clear of displaying partisan support. Brand growth depends on resonating with the core values of your greater constituency, so potentially polarizing a percentage of those people may not be good business.
But claiming political allegiance is the new strategy du jour to drive goodwill, especially when a brand is perceived as “standing up for what’s right” in today’s divisive world. Product brands are trending by taking political stances to stay relevant and competitive. Demonstrating corporate responsibility typically is something embraced and bonds a brand with its customers.
Lyft’s and Uber’s response to President Trump’s executive order on national monuments is one example. AirBnB is another brand that’s mastered the politics game in a bold and authentic way. They lent their voice against closing U.S. borders to refugees, and for the most part, their constituents supported the stance. However some backlash from hosts has begun to emerge.
Amazon made a bold move to withdraw filming in Georgia following the state’s anti-abortion stance, proclaiming: “There is no way we would ever bring our money to that state by shooting there.” They were widely praised.
How professional services firms are working toward strengthening their brand.
Professional services firms, on the other hand, for the most part, are steering clear of politics. These firms are focused on sustaining attention and staying relevant by being innovative, embracing new technologies and by focusing on customer service improvements. Maintaining high levels of quality with a focus on fulfilling client’s needs strengthens brand loyalty. No politics necessary.
However this doesn’t mean that firms in the professional service market sector are totally steering clear of the issues that are populating today’s headlines. To show their commitment to trending social concerns, emphasis has been placed on addressing diversity, inclusion and climate change.
“We do see that diversity and inclusion and a commitment to the environment are important – not just as core values of our business, but critical to recruiting and retaining our team members. Our people are passionate about making a positive difference in the world,” shares Patti Harburg-Petrich, SE, LEED AP BD+C, a principal at BuroHappold, an international engineering consultancy.
Harburg-Petrich goes on to describe how BuroHappold recently helped launch an online climate emergency declaration for structural, civil and building services engineering firms in the UK aligned to promote zero carbon construction. “The industry is pledging to set new priorities and develop better ways of working.”
Learning to walk the line of brand politics.
If you do decide to engage in political discourse, take caution. You run a risk of boycotts, polarization and confusion. This survey showed that customers don’t necessarily like when brands mouth off about politics. However, if you have a good sense of your constituents’ belief system and think a bold political statement will help drive growth and loyalty, make sure you keep these guidelines to in mind:
Be prepared to take action. If you make a political declaration, then invest in something that shows you mean business. Using the Uber/Lyft example again, Lyft immediately pledged $1 million to the ACLU. But something as simple as committing to a community initiative with employee volunteerism can work just as well.
Don’t stray too far from your truth. Respect your brand roots and the values they were built upon. It made sense when both REI and Patagonia, whose brands historically are environmentally driven, took anti-Trump positions on the national monument issue. Patagonia’s president even announced he was going to sue Trump, and launched the hashtag #MonumentalMistakes. But would a brand in, say the beer industry be as authentic with such stances? Aligning with a party initiative when that hasn’t been part of your brand DNA likely isn’t going to enhance the customer experience. They would rather know the product tastes great and is reasonably priced.
Don’t be tone-deaf just to sell product. Pepsi, Kendall and BlackLivesMatter: One of the biggest political missteps of all time. The beverage giant decided to leverage the #BlackLivesMatter movement to sell Pepsi and the resulting campaign, which glibly used its product as a peace offering to settle cultural unrest, horrified victims of racism.
Know thy customer. Do you have a good grasp of the socio economics of your customer and what they value? If not, you can easily alienate your constituent base and jeopardize your connection with them. Try polling your customers to find out how they react to political issues. Make sure you are savvy about where they live and how your position on an issue might affect their livelihood and their families. According to branding experts at Sol, “Your brand lives in your customers’ needs and desires, as well as their perceptions of you and their connection to you. Branding is not an inside-out activity; it’s an outside-in activity.”
The bottom line is you should be extremely careful before entering political waters. You can easily get pulled under if you’re not laser focused on how your stance supports the needs of your customers and how they perceive the goodwill you’re trying to create.