All Brands Take Political Stances, Deliberately or Not

June 1, 2018 Kyle Harper

An American flag tied to a flagpole on a beach

Traditional marketing wisdom has long told us that politically active brands are a dangerous idea. The political space is too unpredictable and polarized for businesses to keep steady footing. Opinion can too quickly turn into violent backlash with little to no provocation. Perhaps most important of all was that simple social rule so many of us learned long ago: It’s not polite to talk about politics in front of company.

But today, keeping cool in a heated political climate doesn’t necessarily mean remaining passive. In fact, with some new studies showing that certain audiences are actually looking for brands to be more politically engaged, it appears the landscape for marketers has changed. Questions have begun to shift from whether to engage politically towards how to engage politically. Big statements? Grand gestures? Or is simply liking the right Twitter post enough?

There is a lot of opportunity to build rapport by connecting with your audience’s political ideals—so long as you go about doing so with intention and care.

A woman holding an American flag overhead

Image attribution: John Willink

Creating Connection

Whether brands should take a political stance is not an easy question to answer outright for an obvious reason—it depends on the brand. This simple answer cuts to the first, most fundamental principle that marketers have to keep in mind if they want their brands to engage politically: Politically active brands are only successful when their causes matter to both themselves and their audiences.

Starbucks has given us a great example of this with their forays into race and identity politics over the past few years. Back in 2015, Starbucks launched a disastrous #RaceTogether campaign that encouraged customers to engage their baristas in conversations about identity and race in America. Was this an issue that mattered to a large portion of their audience? Absolutely. But without a specific, tangible reason for the campaign to be connected to Starbucks’ interest, customers perceived a disconnect—a disconnect that quickly started to look like manipulative opportunism.

It was a political marketing blunder that stands in stark contrast to 2017 when, in response to President Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Starbucks announced they would be hiring 10,000 refugees as they immigrated to the States. By connecting with a topic of concern to their audience and then demonstrating their vested interest in the same cause, Starbucks was able to win enormous positive support, especially from a majority of audiences under the age of 44.

Real connection with your audience can only happen if your brand is actually invested in the issues that affect your visitors. Authenticity, more often than not, serves as a primary source of credibility to audiences and will likewise serve as the primary backdrop for any content experience you aim to create.

Avoiding Exploitive Participation

Non-engagement in politics has long been considered a neutral move in marketing. But not only is non-engagement a risky tactic today when audiences are hungry to understand brands’ positions, it’s also not as simple as you might think.

Not taking a position or making a public statement isn’t enough to shield your brand from negative political engagement. Consider for instance Uber, which during the same 2017 travel ban came under fire for offering discounts to riders at JFK International . . . at the same time New York City taxi associations were on strike in protest of the ban.

While Uber hadn’t taken a position on any issues, many considered their move to be exploitive, resulting in a large loss of users for Uber. By comparison, Uber’s competitor Lyft went the opposite route, making public donations and beginning a trend of content geared towards offering free resources to politically engaged audience members. On paper, Lyft took the riskier route of making a declarative political stance, but ultimately Uber’s attempt at coyness was the one that backfired.

There are two helpful lessons to be learned here. First, don’t try to exploit political controversy for your brand’s gain—questionable ethics aside, it’ll also all too often come back to bite you. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if a political situation touches your brand, it may be better to come at it from a clearly defined position, rather than trying to stay neutral. Neutral brands will quickly find their stories defined by their observing audience, while declarative brands will have more success defining and shaping their political narrative.

Stories as a Foundation

Thoughtful engagement and intentional participation all come down to a fundamental principle: Your ideals need to be backed by stories.

Think about it. How many times have you heard a a prominent figure or business deliver a statement about an issue that felt canned or without heart? Hold these experiences up alongside speakers who shared their personal investment in an issue, or brands that produce articles and videos about how a situation impacts their workers or customers is a personal way. The contrast is stunning.

Ben & Jerry’s might be the most prolific example of this sort of approach. The famously politically active brand has an entire content hub dedicated to the various social issues that the brand cares about, filled to the brim with informational and narrative content. Likewise, Patagonia has built on their history of documenting outdoor adventurers to become impassioned protectors of America’s natural spaces. These two brands’ explicitly politicized stances work because they stem from the real stories of the people who make up their companies and their audiences. This not only provided an easy structure for visitors to latch onto as they engaged with this content, but it ensured that the brand organically grew into conversations that mattered to their audiences, because their audiences’ stories defined the content they were creating.

A young boy smiling while playing in a sprinkler with an American flag in the background

Image attribution: Frank McKenna

Should brands take a political stance? The answer today in our highly politicized world is that any brand might be perceived to be taking a stance at any time—the real question is who will get to define that stance. Content marketers serve a vital role in this equation, because we facilitate conversations between audience ideals and brand ideals. Focus on showing a stance through stories, rather than making declarative statements. Seek out ways to authentically connect your positions with behavior and interests that are associated with your brand. You don’t have to take a particularly strong or highly controversial position to simply let your audience know that your brand exists in and cares about the same world that they do.

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Featured image attribution: Greg Ortega

The post All Brands Take Political Stances, Deliberately or Not appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

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