How Embracing a Political POV Can Forge a Deeper Connection to Consumers

You may lose followers, but you'll benefit more from committing to brand values

Taking a stand on important political or societal events isn't necessarily isolating. Getty Images
Headshot of Ida Rezvani

Brands have power when they have a purpose, a strong point of view that they can use to change the world around them. Granted, there are risks, but they can be mitigated through authenticity.

In their article “Consumers Turn Shopping Into a Political Statement,” the Financial Times said, “67 percent of people will try a brand for the first time because of its position on a controversial issue.”

While this is known to many, CEOs and CMOs stand divided on whether they should have a strong point of view on what is happening in the world on behalf of the brands they represent. Understandable, given that this comes with huge risk and responsibility. Get it wrong, and your brand will get dragged through the media, share price will take a beating and customers will drop you. We all saw this with Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

So, what do you do? Nothing? This feels like a cop-out. Strong leaders and brands have a point of view. It’s easy to hide this for fear of being polarizing, but the reality is that this isn’t going to lead to loyalty, advocacy and growth. The role of the brand is to provide a point of view, and this, in turn, provides relevance to the audience.

I was heartened to see Marriott’s recent “Golden Rule” campaign. The commercial talks about Marriott’s guiding principle of “treating others how we’d like to be treated,” and “it would be great if human beings would be great at being human.” And so it goes on as a strong take on what hospitality means in today’s political climate.

However, it is at odds with the stance taken by CEO Arne Sorenson at the Skift Conference in New York. Sorenson talked about one of his hotels hosting an ACT for America meeting. The group had been identified as an anti-Muslim hate group, and Sorenson received letters asking if the event was pulled.

Sorenson said, “The fact they are using our hotel does not mean we support their point of view.” He went on to say, “I shudder to think that we expect that Marriott’s role is to say your views are not acceptable in our hotels and that another person’s views are.”

It’s a well-made argument. However, Sorenson’s belief that hoteliers shouldn’t be passing judgment on the beliefs of its guests feels completely at odds with his “Golden Rule” campaign. There needs to be follow-through from CMO to CEO. Without it, all credibility is lost.

We have an opportunity to change the world with the work we do with our clients, and it’s important we don’t lose sight of that.

While some feel it’s not their place to comment on politics, many business leaders do. Airbnb stated it wouldn’t allow white supremacists to rent their apartments during the protest that took place in Charlottesville. And earlier this year following Trump’s Muslim ban, CEO Brian Chesky said the brand would be providing free housing for those not allowed in the U.S.

What can we learn from this? Stating a political point of view that is in line with the business you are in is credible. Furthermore, taking action to cement that point of view is essential. Brands are what they do, not just what they say.

Of course, within their user base, they will have people who oppose their points of view but don’t let that stop them. These values are what define them, the people who work for them and those who use their products and services. If they lose some consumers along the way, that’s OK, too. This is what powerful brands, leaders and credibility look like.

We have an opportunity to change the world with the work we do with our clients, and it’s important we don’t lose sight of that. Of course, CMOs and CEOs can choose to join the debate or not. However, if they don’t, they stand the chance of becoming irrelevant and ultimately forgoing business growth.

Bill Bernbach said, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.” No more apathy, no more coasting—let’s change the world.

@IdaRezvani Ida Rezvani is the WPP team lead for IHG.