Why Your Brand Storytelling Strategy Should Take a Stand

December 2, 2016 Keith MacKenzie

brand storytelling

Picture this: you’re a successful chief marketing officer overseeing the brand storytelling process at the headquarters of a multinational textile manufacturing company. Textiles may not be the sexiest industry out there, but it’s still a huge and very international space. As a result, your company has a direct stake in international trade agreements.

You’re aware of the statement that National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) chairman Jeff Price made in a formal endorsement of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2016:

It was critical for our government to produce a final agreement that appropriately reflected the needs of US textile manufacturers and the hundreds of thousands of workers we employ nationwide. We believe that the agreement concluded late last year in Atlanta meets our core objectives and is worthy of our full support.

That’s clear, and simple, and safe. You go along with it, being a member of the NCTO. Nevertheless, you have watched the developments leading up to November 8, the date of the US election. The leadup to the vote brought to the forefront America’s manufacturing crisis, and subsequently, your company’s own stake in it. Donald Trump has been clear in his opposition to the TPP, calling it a “job killer.”

That gets your attention. But you know that Barack Obama has been an active proponent of the trade deal, and it’s expected that things will carry on once Clinton takes over the Oval Office. Nate Silver and other pollsters have predicted a Clinton victory. TPP will go on, and your textile company will proceed as usual. All this Trump business will be behind you. The predictions seem clear enough, so you hit the sack early on Nov. 8 before the vote count is finished.

You wake up the next morning, to this:

Collage of election front pages

“A new reality sinks in.”

“Trump moves to reassure shocked allies and nervous investors.”

“TRUMPQUAKE.”

Every business leader is now starting to think how they’re going to position their brands in this new, unexpected environment. You start to think about it, too. Not only is the TPP in danger of being scrapped, you’re looking at US President Elect Donald J. Trump—a lightning rod for controversy. You realize you and your brand need to step up, not only for the bottom line but also on principle. Trump has a fiercely loyal support base, many of them your own brand’s consumers. You don’t want to alienate that part of the market, but you can’t be quiet either. Your employees, your customers, and the public at large are very interested in what you have to say. They know you have a stake in the whole thing, so your opinion is coveted. People are watching your brand storytelling for any shifts. Your word carries weight.

Honestly, you’d rather keep all this out of your content strategy. Mixing marketing with politics is, after all, a minefield that usually leads to problems. But those media microphones are being shoved into your face.

What do you do?

When Brands Take Stands

Taking a political stand as a brand isn’t just a double-edged sword; it’s a razor’s edge. No matter where you stand, you’re going to alienate a fair chunk of your marketplace. GrubHub invited particular vitriol for its very overt anti-bigotry stance, with its CEO sending an email to all staff saying:

I absolutely reject the nationalist, anti-immigrant and hateful politics of Donald Trump and will work to shield our community from this movement as best as I can. As we all try to understand what this vote means to us, I want to affirm to anyone on our team that is scared or feels personally exposed, that I and everyone else here at GrubHub will fight for your dignity and your right to make a better life for yourself and your family here in the United States. … If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here. We do not tolerate hateful attitudes on our team.

Maloney endured a powerful backlash against his company via Twitter and even the stock market. He elucidated his statement: “I want to clarify that I did not ask for anyone to resign if they voted for Trump … I would never make such a demand.”

Meanwhile, prior to the election, the outspoken Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, pulled no punches in stating where he stood:

When it’s all said and done, I’d rather lose every penny than have Trump as president…Because I care more about the future of my family and my children than I do about my pocketbook. And if that means we play to empty arenas, I’m down with that. What could be more important than my kids? The idea of my kids growing up in a Trump presidency? I know the guy. And there’s just no chance. I could go on for days.

Cuban softened his tone after the election, imploring people to give Trump a chance and admitting: “I was dumb enough to think I would be able to talk people out of voting for Donald Trump by detailing what I thought were his weaknesses. The Trump campaign had to be laughing at me and thanking me at the same time.”

Pro-Trump statements likewise upset a sector of the population. During a visit by Eric Trump to one of Yuengling’s facilities in Pennsylvania, the brewing company expressed support of Eric’s father, spurring uproar; two bars in Philadelphia opted not to carry the beer, others pledged to follow suit, and social media channels saw a cascade of vows to never drink Yuengling again.

Even football’s New England Patriots found themselves embroiled in the mess. Speculation was rampant that star quarterback Tom Brady was in Trump’s corner—which dates back to an overt statement that Trump would make a “great president” and the sighting of a red “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker. Like Maloney and Cuban, Brady had to backpedal. He clarified that he wasn’t outright supporting Trump, and since then, his stance has been less than clear.

Lack of a public stance? Maybe Brady had something going. Why does anyone have to make their viewpoint public? Evidently, it has no good result, so best to not say anything. Right? Well…

What If You Don’t Get Involved?

As the Rush lyric goes: “You can choose not to decide but you still have made a choice.” But if you stand on the razor’s edge without going on either side, particularly in a highly charged political environment, you’re going to get cut. Brady may have been haunted by his previous statements about Trump, but what affected people’s perceptions more was his apparent lack of willingness to come out and take a stand. This only fed speculation to the point where supermodel wife Gisele Bündchen felt compelled to make clear on Instagram that she and her husband were indeed not supporting the Donald. But the damage may have already been done.

Flickr credit: Keith Allison

The same applies for your brand storytelling strategy in many cases: not taking a stand feeds speculation on your real motives as a company—whether you’re in textiles or not. For some, it’s perceived as dishonest or even spineless. More so, it creates a vacuum of opinion that’s eagerly filled by those who are outspoken, like Trump himself. Patriots coach Bill Belichick had uttered barely a public word about his political allegiances, until Trump came out and said that he had the support of both Belichick and Brady. Trump certainly wouldn’t have been able to do so with Maloney or Cuban—no one would believe him, as the latter were clear about their loyalties.

And basketball legend Michael Jordan is famously rumored to have said “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in remaining publicly neutral during the politically sensitive and very high profile North Carolina senator race in 1990 between Rep. Jesse Helms and Dem. Harvey Gantt. As North Carolina’s most famous athlete of all time, Jordan’s voice carries a lot of punch. In the end, Helms won by a few percentage points—and some say a Jordan endorsement of Gantt would have swayed the vote the other way.

Even public policy can be swayed by lobbyists and businesses with vested interests, as many brands found out the hard way in staying silent during the noise around the proposed EPA Clean Power Plan in 2015. Their silence resulted in an overwhelmingly anti-EPA voice in both Washington and at the state level. Enforcement of the plan has been hit and miss, at best. Anne Kelly of Ceres, in organizing the movement to support the plan, said it best: “Silence isn’t neutral.”

So not taking a stand isn’t a good idea either. Vacuums suck. So you should fill them. It’s a risky venture, but it can be done.

The Danger in Expressing Viewpoints

That’s a step in the right direction, but it depends on how you do it. Two of Brady’s Boston sports peers found themselves mired in controversy due to political viewpoints: Red Sox hurler Curt Schilling and Bruins puckstopper Timothy Thomas.

Thomas and Schilling picked no bones about where their loyalties were. Thomas remains the subject of controversy for refusing to go to the White House with the Boston Bruins in 2012 during the traditional visit of the Stanley Cup champions, and in Schilling’s case, a heavily criticized defense of one of Trump’s more controversial statements on leering at young women among other examples of outspokenness.

Like individual athletes and CEOs, brands likewise aren’t exempt from such vitriol for voicing their opinions. During the foul-tempered leadup to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, British supermarket chain Asda incited particular vitriol for its apparent threat to raise prices in its stores if Scotland indeed voted to leave the United Kingdom:

If we were no longer to operate in one state with one market and–broadly–one set of rules, our business model would inevitably become more complex. We would have to reflect our cost to operate here. … This is not an argument for or against independence, it is simply an honest recognition of the costs that change could bring. … For us the customer is always right and this important decision is in their hands.

Asda became the subject of much antagonism from Scottish independence supporters. You might wonder how things may be different if Asda had not talked so aggressively—or so backhandedly—to the market base that keeps its profits afloat.

Of Course, There’s an Ulterior Motive

So clearly, we have a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. So the question is this: if you must take a stand, how do you do it right? Two words: transparency and respect. The opinion isn’t necessarily wrong. Expressing it isn’t wrong either. But the way in which it’s expressed can be.

Let’s face facts—there’s an ulterior motive in nearly every decision a brand makes. That’s just business, after all, as we’ve seen in the Boston Globe casting a spotlight on the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal in the interest of selling newspapers. At the very least, your brand needs to be clear about its motives to its customers in such a way that respects them. The Asda supermarket chain’s message to its own customers was perceived as a threat, which led to negative fallout. The GrubHub CEO’s email to his employees was, likewise, received unfavorably by both employees and the public at large. Both were transparent, but could have utilized a better and clearer narrative that showed greater respect for the intended audience’s political and social inclinations.

Let’s look at an example of clearly stated ulterior motives, in 2014, when the state of Arizona was on the verge of passing SB 1062, better known as the so-called “religious freedom” bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to gay customers. This worried many brands operating in the state, and they even said as much. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker stated in a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer:

Few states suffered as greatly during the recession as Arizona … Thanks to a collaborative effort between the business and civic communities, we have been able to generate an economic comeback that is beginning to show great signs of success. There is genuine concern throughout the business community that this bill, if signed into law, would jeopardize all that has been accomplished so far. Wholly apart from the stated intent of this legislation, the reality is that it has the very real potential of slowing down the momentum we have achieved by reducing the desire of businesses to locate in Arizona and depressing the travel and tourism component of the economy if both convention traffic and individual tourists decide to go elsewhere. Our economy thrives best when the doors of commerce are open to all. This bill sends the wrong message.

Parker was honest about his concerns. And he was respectful of his audience. Now that’s a statement that commands better respect than Schilling’s ham-handed comments on Trump or Asda’s fear-focused narrative.

What if a brand simply takes a stand on principle? Consider the National Football League. It’s widely believed that the NFL’s threat to relocate the very lucrative Super Bowl from Arizona to another state ultimately prompted Gov. Brewer to exercise her veto power to stop SB 1062 from becoming law. The NFL, in fact, had already followed through on a threat previously in 1993 when Arizona hadn’t yet established a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

We can’t say for certain what the real motive was in the NFL’s decision-making process, but it’s hard to imagine that the profitability of one of the biggest events on the American calendar would be dented in any way by the political process at the host state level. Honestly, the Super Bowl would be lucrative even if it were held on a frozen island in Canada’s North. So, it may be safe to assume that the NFL was acting largely on principle. While the NFL has been widely slammed for its lack of a stand on domestic violence, pulling out their trump card (sorry) to influence policy in Arizona commands respect.

So, You Should Take a Stand

When your brand takes the lead and expresses a stance politely in its content strategy, your customers will respect you. And that influences the purchasing decision. In a recent poll, 84 percent of Americans stated that it is appropriate for a corporation to take a stand on a political issue facing its specific industry. Even then, 56 percent of Americans think it’s important for your company to take a stand in any case. The same report has very clear lessons on how to broach controversial topics: know your audience and particularly practice what you preach through actions, not words. Brands would also do well to consider the age group of their target markets: a poll found that Millennials were much more likely to have a higher opinion of a brand (43 percent) than those in the 45-54 age bracket (20 percent) when that brand actively takes part in a social issue.

So, you, Mr. Joe Marketer, CMO of said textile company, should stand up and express your position and your company’s official stance. It may incur a backlash—that much is inevitable, really—but if you choose your words wisely and thoughtfully, it will invite respect in kind.

Loyal customers are earned because they respect and love your brand. It’s not simply the product itself that they love; they love the personality that the product invokes. And more so, everyone respects someone with the conviction to stand up for their beliefs, provided it’s expressed respectfully and doesn’t come down hard on the opposing opinion. Put your best and most eloquent foot forward in your brand storytelling strategy, Mr. Marketer, and your image will benefit accordingly.

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