The public’s expectations of corporate engagement in politics have changed dramatically in recent years. Consumers are keenly aware corporations deploy billions of dollars to influence policy, and as trust in the government erodes the public is increasingly expecting corporations, and CEOs, to take a stand on issues that matter to them.
A polarized political climate has seen many companies do just that. Nike, Starbucks, Patagonia, Delta, Dick’s Sporting Goods, are just some of the companies that went political in 2018.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Trump’s policies have been the core of these political exclamations.
Yet, a new study performed by market research company Morning Consult indicates that mentioning Trump is likely to harm your brand. No matter if the mention is positive or negative.
So how should brands approach political activism during the Trump era? Here are some suggestions.
The study from Morning Consult found that:
Only 30% of people will have a more favorable view of a company if it issues a positive mention of Trump.
Only 32% will have a more favorable view of the company if it issues a negative mention of Trump.
What’s more striking is that saying something negative about Trump leads 56% of Trump voters to have a much less favorable view of your brand, but just 32% of Clinton voters to have a much more favorable view. For every person you’re making happy, there are almost twice as many who are unhappy.
So how should brands deal with the most polarizing president ever? The safe bet is to avoid mentioning him.
A tale of caution is Under Armour:
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank came under fire for saying on a CNBC interview: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.” Plank’s praise of President Trump led the angry mob to come after his company, Under Armour. The CEO ended up buying a full-page ad in The Baltimore Sun to apologize. “I want to clarify,” Plank wrote, “exactly the values for which Under Armour and I stand.”
A good approach is to mention your position on Trump’s policies, but not mention Trump explicitly.
Some companies that adopted this approach after the 2017 travel ban:
Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, in a statement said, “Coca-Cola is resolute in its commitment to diversity, fairness and inclusion, and we do not support this travel ban or any policy that is contrary to our core values and beliefs”.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in an employee email: “The company is offering its full support to those affected by the ban, we are a nation of immigrants whose diverse backgrounds, ideas, and points of view have helped us build and invent as a nation for over 240 years.”
Budweiser had an even more cautious approach and ran an emotional ad that told the story of 2 German immigrants coming to the United States. Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser, the creators of Budweiser beer.
The Budweiser example is particularly clever. They showed their stance but avoided confrontation. They even mentioned the ad refers to the “American dream”, not the travel ban.
Choose your issue wisely
The first thing to keep in mind is that not all issues are identical on the sensitivity spectrum. The study shows that:
Abortion, anthem protests, and immigration are highly sensitive.
Gun control is moderately sensitive.
Civil rights, criminal justice reform, and LGBTQ rights are not very sensitive.
It is advisable to avoid taking on issues that are highly or even moderately sensitive. For instance, taking a stand on gun control backfired for Dick’s Sporting Goods. They received backlash when they decided to halt assault-weapon sales after the mass shooting in Parkland.
If you nevertheless decide to stand for a controversial issue, you need to show that you are genuinely concerned about it.
Start with the safe bets
You are not sure what issue you should support?
We recommend sticking to basics. Point out you are fair game when it comes to paying and treating employees well, creating jobs, donating to a charity, or partnering with local charities.
Make sure your employees are happy first, then focus your attention to politics. Americans are more willing to overlook political issues than labor practice ones. Treating employees well and boosting American jobs are the best ways to make customers happy.
Only 23% of respondents said they have purchased goods or services from companies with labor practices they do not support (CSR & Political Activism in the Trump Era by Morning Consult).
What if Trump calls out your brand?
President Trump has publicly condemned Boeing, Amazon, American Airlines, Facebook among many others. His comments have hurt some of the companies. Amazon lost billions of dollars in market cap after a barrage of negative Tweets.
General Motors suffered a hit to their stock value after this Tweet:
General Motors handled the criticism very well by issuing a public statement clarifying the facts. Apparently, Trump’s tweet was not entirely accurate. Only 2.4% of the vehicles were imported from Mexico. The majority were built in the United States. Two weeks later, when GM announced a $1 billion investment in U.S. operations Trump offered a thank-you tweet.
President Trump called out Nordstrom after they pulled out Ivanka Trump’s fashion line from their stores. Nordstrom responded the same way as GM, with facts and stated the fashion line had been discontinued because of underperforming sales, which is accurate. In that same afternoon, Nordstrom saw its stock prices increase by more than four percent.
Whether your company enters President Trump’s radar or not, it is crucial to have a strong presence across media channels. You can build your company’s online supporter base by creating engaging content and embed your values into your storytelling. This way if your company’s reputation is ever under attack, your clients already know where you stand.
Brands should intervene on issues deeply rooted in their culture and values. Patagonia has always been an environmentally-conscious brand, and it was no surprise then when they rallied against Trump’s public lands policy.
As tempting as it may be, it’s best to avoid addressing President Trump directly and instead focus on policies that directly affect your company.
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