Why Brands Lost Their Fear of Controversy and Got Political in 2017

Corporate America took a stand against President Trump's policies

Expedia

It’s a longstanding truism of American business that companies don’t like to generate controversy—and there are few quicker ways to do that than taking a stance on a political issue.

The reticence is understandable. What company wants to jeopardize its stock price with bad PR? Or get hit with a boycott? And what brand wants to risk alienating one segment of its customer base in order to please another?

Plenty of research counsels prudence, too. In 2014, the Global Strategy Group released a survey that found that 56 percent of Americans believed corporations “should stand up for what they believe politically,” and that’s a big number. Even so, that left 44 percent of Americans—pretty close to half—who felt it was inappropriate for companies to take such stands. This year, a 4A’s survey found that 58 percent of consumers “dislike when brands get political.”

But looking back, it’s clear 2017 became the year that corporations shed their reservations about stepping up on the soap box. In overwhelming numbers, America’s largest and most influential brands made their positions on a range of socio-political issues clear—at times brutally so.

And while companies have taken controversial stands in years past—Walmart taking a stance on sustainability 12 years ago or Disney adding domestic-partner benefits as early as 1995—this year was clearly different in another respect: Not only did brands take highly public policy stances, but most of them took the form of active and direct opposition to the President of the United States.

How did it start, and why did it get ugly? Below, a look back.

1. Expedia’s Inauguration-Day warning

It’s hard to say if anyone saw it coming, but what would quickly become a year of companies jumping headlong into the political fray began, fittingly enough, on Inauguration Day: Jan. 20. That Friday, Expedia aired a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching spot called “The Train.” It showed a woman traveling the world, relishing in the beauty of the land and enjoying the company of locals—though gradually, also encountering the disturbing consequences of those with “narrow minds,” including soldiers at checkpoints wielding Kalashnikovs and desperate refugees packing into rafts.

Though the ad’s denouement was a positive one (the woman, having spent her life roving the world and embracing all cultures, grows into an enlightened sage), the implication was clear enough. This ad was a warning against intolerance and, moreover, its timing to inauguration day probably wasn’t a coincidence.

2. Brands converge over the travel ban

As though the Expedia people knew something others did not, a mere week after the inauguration, President Donald Trump issued the first of what would become several travel bans. Officially called the Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, the order halted the admission of all refugees and travelers from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations.

There were, no doubt, many companies that wanted nothing to do with speaking out against a man who not only has a Twitter following of 44.7 million people but was, of course, now the leader of the most powerful country on earth. But soon, caution fell away and companies went on record to condemn the order.

“I oppose excluding people from U.S. based on their nationality or religion, period,” tweeted Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson.

“Executive orders affecting worlds’ most vulnerable are un-American. Dropbox embraces people from all countries and faiths,” tweeted the company’s founder and CEO Drew Houston.

“Like many of you, I’m concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump,” wrote Facebook founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg, who pointed out that his wife Priscilla’s parents arrived to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam and China.

Other companies made their political positions clear through their sizeable corporate coffers, with Lyft pledging to donating $1 million to the ACLU and Google starting a $4 million fund to benefit four immigrants’ rights organizations.

Meanwhile, Nike CEO Mark Parker responded with a five-paragraph email to his employees, stating unequivocally that “this is a policy we don’t support” and that “Nike stands together against bigotry and any form of discrimination.”

3. Nordstrom gives Ivanka’s shoes the boot

On Feb. 2, the upscale retailer announced that it will no longer carry the clothing and shoes of Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. While many saw the decision as political, the store claimed that it based its decision solely on the poor performance of the brand.

Meanwhile, skeptics of the company line pointed out that Nordstrom had recently been targeted by Grab Your Wallet, an activist group founded in October 2016, shortly after a hot mic picked up Trump’s now-notorious “Grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, referring to his conquests of various women.

On its site, Grab Your Wallet encouraged consumers to write to Nordstrom (and other retailers) and say: “Unfortunately I can no longer do business with your company because it does business with the Trump family. If your company were to no longer do this, I would enthusiastically return as a customer. Please communicate my feedback to management.”

4. Coke and Airbnb go political at the Super Bowl

With its TV audience of 112 million, it’s a given that brands look to the Super Bowl as an opportunity to send what’s probably their most important message of the year. But 2017’s game saw two brands sidelining the usual advertising pitches in favor of socio-political messages—specifically, about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Before the game even kicked off, Coca-Cola aired a spot picturing people of a range of ethnic persuasions and ages, set against “America the Beautiful,” sung in a variety of languages. Not to be outdone, Airbnb weighed in with a spot titled “We Accept,” which also cycled through photographs of diverse Americans over the message: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

Both ads were seen as thinly veiled retorts to President Trump’s Jan. 27 travel ban. But the veiling was necessary, since the ads had to tiptoe around Fox’s prohibition of ads that express a “viewpoint or advocacy of controversial issues.” (In a similar vein, in order to make it in the game, 84 Lumber had to edit its original spot about immigrants running into a border wall.)

However these brands felt about having their hands tied, one CEO—Airbnb’s Brian Chesky—had already said his piece about Trump’s ban days before the game even aired. “This is a policy I profoundly disagree with,” he wrote in a Jan. 29 memo to his employees, “and it is a direct obstacle to our mission at Airbnb.”

He then offered free housing to those whom the travel ban shut out.

5. Cadillac performs at the Oscars

In the wake of a contentious election season, Cadillac—whose public messages customarily run next to images of Escalades and WT5s prowling down misty streets—surprised the country with an overtly political ad that aired on Oscar night.

“We are a nation divided,” intoned a narrator over slo-mo footage of protests, working his velvety way toward the redemptive conclusion that people’s political differences need not rip the social fabric: “While we’re not the same, we can be one.”

While the spot was, ultimately, a pitch for the Cadillac brand, the company’s thematic foray did not go unnoticed, with CNN calling the spot “the Cadillac ad that got political.”

6. Dawn of the amicus briefs

A federal judge’s emergency injunction stopped cold Trump’s original travel ban of Jan. 27. The administration rejiggered the ban on Feb. 1 to exempt the holders of green cards. That concession, however, wasn’t enough for a slew of technology companies—a whopping 127 of them to be exact signed on to a Feb. 5 amicus brief opposing the president’s executive order. (Want to read the whole thing? It’s here.)

The brief was a veritable who’s who of digital heavyweights, among them Apple, Google, PayPal and Netflix. Indeed, this was a return to the political soapbox for many brands and their chief executives who’d first spoken out at the end of January, among them Apple’s Tim Cook and Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who’d written on Facebook that “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all.”

As things turned out, a federal judge blocked Trump’s revised plan, too. But the president was back with still another travel ban on March 6. And on March 15, another amicus brief appeared, this time with 58 companies on it. Many of them had already placed their names on February’s retort to the president, but this time names included the likes of TripAdvisor and Warby Parker.

After winding its way through the federal courts, the matter finally found its way to the Supreme Court, which on June 26 permitted a limited version of the ban to take effect.

7. Global warming leads to hot tempers

After President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, many American companies cried foul—among them Ford Motor, Apple, Goldman Sachs and even Exxon Mobile. But the spotlight went to Elon Musk, who was first to walk away from the president’s business advisory council, and didn’t mince words explaining why.

“Am departing presidential councils,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”

A few hours later, Disney CEO Robert Iger also walked—though without words as pointed as Musk’s. Meanwhile, Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs—possibly the most powerful man on Wall Street—took to Twitter with his own criticism of the businessman president: “Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world,” he wrote.

8. That Mess in Charlottesville

When the Unite the Right Rally, held in the Virginia college town of Charlottesville, put images of torch-carrying white nationalists on TV and ended in the injury of 19 and the death of one, President Trump took to the airwaves and condemned violence on “many sides.”

Uh-oh.

To many, the president’s words equated to granting white supremacists a moral parity with progressive counter protestors. And to Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharma giant Merck and the sole African-American member of Trump’s manufacturing council, it was simply too much.

Early in the morning of Aug. 14, Frazier issued a statement announcing his resignation from the council, along with a clear indictment of the president: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal. As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

The president responded by personally attacking Frazier and his company, calling Merck “a leader in higher & higher drug prices” and suggesting that his resignation would give him “more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”

But the die had been cast. Kevin Plank of Under Armour and Brian Krzanich of Intel walked away next and, following Trump’s impromptu comments the following day—assigning the “alt-left” with a role the violence—the trickle became a hemorrhage, with 3M’s CEO Inge Thulin, Campbell CEO Denise Morrison, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO Alex Gorsky and GE’s Jeff Immelt joining the line out the door.

As former Medtronic chief Bill George later told The New York Times: “These executives cannot live with customers thinking they are in cahoots with someone who supports white supremacists or neo-Nazis.”

9. The CEO of Chase Cuts to the Chase

On Nov. 22, J.P.Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was among the attendees of a lunch at the venerable Economic Club of Chicago, when he was asked how long he thought President Trump would be in office. In normal times, a financial chief might demur to answer such a question—or come down politely on the side of a Republican president. But this year obviously wasn’t a normal time.

So, how many more years would Trump be in the White House?

“I’d bet three and a half,” Dimon said.

This wasn’t the first time that the longtime bank chief executive had let his political views be known in 2017. During an earnings call in July, Dimon railed against the inactivity of the government—a message that seemed aimed squarely at Congress, if not also the White House: “We have become one of the most bureaucratic, confusing, litigious societies on the planet,” he said, adding that it was “almost an embarrassment being an American citizen traveling around the world and listening to the stupid shit we have to deal with in this country.”

10. Patagonia Stakes Its Claim

When the White House announced on Dec. 4 that President Trump planned to drastically cut the acreage of two of Utah’s national monuments—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante—many conservatives in Utah cheered. But there was no cheering in California at the headquarters of outdoor apparel brand Patagonia. Within hours, the company had prepared to return fire.

By that Monday evening, visitors to Patagonia’s web site encountered a home page that was solid black, save for the message: The President Stole Your Land. Calling the president’s action “the largest elimination of protected land in America” and “an illegal move,” Patagonia encouraged visitors to respond using a medium Trump would understand—Twitter—and went as far as setting up a handy Tweeting feature that allowed visitors to channel their frustrations directly to the White House.

Two days after launching a tweet volley against Trump, Patagonia CEO Rose Marciano appeared in an op-ed in Time magazine, promising that her company “will be challenging his decision in court.” Stay tuned.

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