How Brands Can Navigate the Political Minefield

Go all in, or don’t go in at all

A cube-like rendering of a broken American flag with four people standing on four stars and four people standing on the stripes
In the minefield of modern politics, how should brands approach polarizing issues, if at all?
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No brand is an island. Brands are built to resonate with the needs and hopes of customers, which evolve with culture. For better or worse, brands reflect the color and character of their times.

And the times, they are political. In fact, about 57% of consumers say a company’s stance on social or political issues is important when considering where to buy a product or service.

Our increasingly political culture is exerting new pressure on brands in all industries to stake their claim on controversial topics. In the minefield of modern politics, how should brands approach polarizing issues, if at all?

Know thyself

As a brand-builder, know what your brand stands for. This includes knowing your stakeholders inside and out. What matters to them, and what issues do they care about? These insights will be invaluable when determining whether to get involved or not.

To avoid alienating some consumers, many brands have chosen to stay neutral on controversial topics. But be aware that consumers will hold brands accountable for silence as well as action. If disappointed with a company’s action (or inaction) on a social issue important to them, 47% of consumers will stop buying from that brand.

Once you decide to enter a politicized conversation, enter boldly or not at all.

Pick your battles

Carefully choose the moments you insert your brand into the cultural conversation. Once you enter the fray of a polarizing topic, you can’t easily leave the arena.

This means that leadership must be on the same page, or you could end up in a vicious cycle of damage control, thanks to a rogue executive’s comments (as the team at Papa John’s knows all too well).

And what happens if your brand is swept up in scandal or controversy beyond its control? Always revert to what your customers and employees value most. By using your brand strategy as the North Star, the course of action should become clear, whether that course is to engage, set the record straight or ignore it altogether.

Show your commitment

A brand’s activities can be perceived as pandering if they aren’t supported with meaningful action or contributions to a cause. Determine the extent of your engagement on the topic, otherwise, it could look like you’re capitalizing on a movement or trend, which could backfire spectacularly.

Remember Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad that was mocked for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement? Nobody likes an opportunistic brand appearing to exploit politics for financial gain. Once you decide to enter a politicized conversation, enter boldly or not at all. Retweeting a meme doesn’t count. Internal action and external advocacy are what give real meaning to a brand’s words.

Prepare for backlash

Inserting your brand into a hot-button issue involves risk, and some backlash is inevitable. While scrutiny will come from a variety of sources, bold moves can galvanize your most loyal supporters into becoming true advocates.

Consider Patagonia’s lawsuit attempting to block the Trump administration from removing protections for two national monuments. Their action garnered significant support from the brand’s followers and contributed to a 7% sales bump the following week. Ultimately, you have to weigh the risks of alienating some customers against the benefits of turning casual fans into devotees.

Brands need to carefully consider what role—if any—they want to play in political discourse. Political issues are so polarizing because they deal with the rights of individuals and the well-being of communities. Any brand participating in the conversation needs to demonstrate the empathy that’s necessary to make a meaningful impact. As a brand asserting its point of view in the political sphere, tread carefully, purposefully and with eyes wide open to the potential risks.

With thoughtful planning and deliberate execution, brand builders can take a stand and earn the of loyalty of today’s more politically-minded consumers.

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