Do business and politics mix? Increasingly, the answer seems to be yes. Here, we cover brands that have taken a political stand and share what we've learned from their varying approaches. With corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives on the rise, and more CEOs taking a socially outspoken stance, brands should be asking themselves if this approach is right for them. And if so, proceed with their eyes wide open.
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So, Should Brands Take a Political Stance?
That exact question has been tossed around PR and communication departments for decades with many deciding to shy away from mixing PR and politics because of the overall risk.
However, we’re starting to see a monumental shift in how brands approach highly-political situations. Brands like Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Dove are starting to see political situations as an opportunity to take a stand for what they believe to be right.
And it’s working. According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, 64% of consumers reported they make purchasing decisions based on a brand’s social or political position.
This is why we’ve collected three of our favorite examples of brands taking a political stance and how powerful it can be in rallying your audience and attracting customers.
3 Brands That Mix PR and Politics
Combining PR and politics isn't just for campaign consultants and lobbyists. Big brands have been getting in on the action. Here are examples of bold moves three brands made and the reactions they got.
1. WeWork Goes Vegetarian
In July 2018, WeWork shocked the startup industry by announcing it was going vegetarian (more or less).
In a statement to the 6,000-employee co-working behemoth, Miguel McKelvey (co-founder and chief culture officer) stated that the company will no longer serve meat at company functions, nor will it reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.
According to McKelvey, the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, which is a key strategic public relations move in how WeWork chose to frame their announcement.
Obviously decisions like this don’t come lightly and there will inevitably be both supporters and critics of the decision, but WeWork seemed to draw a positive reaction from their audience and reports alike. Major publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post all covered the news in a positive light.
Key PR Lesson: When making a potentially controversial political decision, it’s important to frame your reasoning in terms of the bigger picture. Make it less “personal” and more about serving the greater good.
2. Salesforce Votes “Yes” on Prop C
In one of the bigger political brand moves of 2018, Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, made a pledge to support Prop C – A measure to tax the biggest businesses in San Francisco to raise as much as $300 million for homeless programs:
What’s most interesting about this particular situation is that Marc Benioff personally led the charge as opposed to Salesforce as a brand overall. However, Salesforce reported nearly $5.9 million in contributions, while Benioff was personally in for $2 million.
The PR and communication teams at Salesforce successfully navigated what might have been a tricky situation by allowing Benioff to be the “face” of the marketing campaign, rather than tying it back to the brand.
Key PR Lesson: Mixing PR and politics can garner support from your customers as well as potential backlash. By allowing a key executive to take the lead on an issue, you can help disassociate your brand from any negative press.
3. Patagonia Launches “The President Stole Your Land”
Patagonia has long been known for its pro-environment mantra—often speaking out publicly about land conservation and other highly-political issues.
But perhaps their biggest stand yet was what they called, “The President Stole Your Land.”
What’s so intriguing about this campaign is how well it fits into the Patagonia narrative.
Today, many PR and communication teams fall into the trap of commenting on issues that don’t necessarily fit their overall message or brand image. What brands should be doing is carefully assessing whether or not to take a stand on a political issue by determining if the issue is truly a part of their identity.
In other words, does the issue build upon and strengthen the brand reputation we have built?
In this case, it strengthened Patagonia’s ongoing fight for conversation, with the hashtag #BearsEars gathering more than 80,000 mentions across social media (according to our social media monitoring platform).
Key PR Lesson: When mixing PR and politics as a brand, it’s important to strategically evaluate the impact that it will have on your overall reputation. If you’re looking for PR coverage inauthentically, people will see right through it. But if you believe in the cause and taking a stand fits your brand identity, that’s where you can have a major impact.
What Audiences Think About Brands That Speak Out on Social and Political Issues
While traditional CSR campaigns focused on a brand’s philanthropic activities, today’s efforts take on issues including climate change, immigration, race, health, and more.
But not everyone appreciates the idea of brands taking a stand.
“Knee-jerk decisions to engage in an activism campaign can spell disaster if prompted primarily by a CEO’s or marketing department’s political itch, an in-the-moment media spotlight grab, or as precedent-setting relief from a protestor boycott,” said public relations consultant Mary Beth West.
Research conducted by PR firm Sword and the Script says that most consumers think brands should stay silent on political issues.
“Nearly half (49%) of overall respondents said brands should not weigh in on political issues,” says Frank Strong, founder, Sword and the Script. “However, it’s not a majority because about one-third said they believe brands should get involved, while another 22% were unsure. Sentiment analysis around this question suggests context matters.”
PR firm Clutch found that while businesses that speak up on social issues and those that choose to stay silent both risk losing customers, staying silent may have less severe consequences. Their study found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63%) say they’re likely to continue shopping at businesses that stay silent on issues they care about.
Aligning a Brand with the Right Cause Matters
Alignment comes into play when companies build a campaign around a social or political issue. Some brands are clearly aligned with their causes. Take, for example, Patagonia supporting environmental issues.
But when Gillette came out with its controversial “The Best Men Can Be” campaign, there was significant blowback, primarily because some thought the brand was trying to appear “woke”—without it taking any action to back it up.
“We should all be asking Gillette: Where can we find your authentic commitment and action to changing this problem?” says Phillip Haid, co-founder, and CEO of Public, in Fast Company. “If brands are going to lean into a social purpose to sell products, we have to expect them to do so with substance. Raising awareness is not enough. There needs to be a genuine, informed, long-term commitment to the issue with a clear plan to achieve the change the company is seeking to create.”
Brands Must Walk Their Talk to Be Believed
If brands do decide to launch such an effort, they must be mindful. If a campaign is just words—and isn’t backed up by the way the brand does business—a company can find itself in hot water.
“Surely no company is going to launch an advertising campaign if it thinks it will lose money; therefore, by definition, any social justice-orientated marketing is driven primarily by money, not advancing the cause of human progress,” says this piece in The Guardian.
If a brand’s commitment extends just to communicating, rather than considering how it conducts its own business, it’s liable to be called out, says Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer at VMLY&R London.
“The lack of a real plan of action seems to follow a worrying trend of brands appropriating social purpose for compelling advertising creative and quickly moving on next quarter to another ‘cool’ trend to sell their product. Sprite’s ‘I Love You, Hater,’ Audi’s wage gap ad ‘Daughter,’ Heineken’s ‘World’s Apart’ experiment, and State Street’s ‘Fearless Girl’ all speak to this worrying trend of inauthentic activity that does little to walk the walk on the issues they are addressing,” Haid says.
To Support or Not to Support — Which Is Better?
So, at the end of the day, how should brands proceed down the slippery slope of supporting social issues?
“CEOs’ advocacy rationales of ‘standing up for our company’s values, no matter what’ certainly can have an appropriate and advantageous time and place, but applied to the wrong scenario, they can present a come-back-to-bite-you outcome, aimed directly at their own bottom lines,” says West.
The prevailing advice seems to be that if a brand chooses to go down this path, it should proceed with caution. It should select an issue that’s a fit and be prepared to back up its promotional efforts with REAL actions to support the message it puts forward.
Next Steps: Be Prepared
There are many examples of brands that have successfully taken outspoken stances on environmental issues, health, and more, but as we’ve seen here, there are plenty of cautionary tales as well. To prepare yourself, be sure to read our essential guides to working with influencers to expand your reach, prepping CEOs for social media, and taking proactive steps to avoid a brand crisis.