February 26, 2019

Can Politics and Business Mix

The perils of getting involved with politics are well known. The political landscape is inherently divisive, often highly emotive, and prone to shifting unrecognisably from week to week. For businesses, with their rigid sales targets and predictions based on more reliable happenings, it’s a precarious world to dabble in.

It’s infinitely easier to stick with the baseline message of your brand. Be it, buy our socks—or cloud storage, or baby-grows, or film subscription service—there’s no denying that this is neat and uncontroversial. Going from buy our socks, to support fracking (for example) is a big leap, and one that we all know can lead to isolating customers.

And yet, many companies continue to get involved. Is it because of the potential upside of getting political? Or because the optics of sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing are equally negative? Or, is it because by not getting involved in politics you risk isolating your business from policy makers who can have enormous effect on your day to day runnings?

Read on for a further exploration of when businesses get political, why they do it, and what the results are.

Because their experience tells a different story to the one unfolding in politics

Immigration became a particularly thorny issue around the time of Brexit, with anti-immigration sentiment having played a large part in the Leave Campaign’s rhetoric. The story being told by the politics in the wake of the vote (talk of harder borders, points systems and immigration quotas) did not tally for some businesses with the reality they were living.

Jigsaw was one such company. They released an openly political, pro-immigration advert.

It’s a celebration of the diversity of what it means to be British, and the brand wasn’t afraid to be critical of the current politics. The campaign included a manifesto declaring:

It goes without saying that there were those who loved the ad and those who hated it. Praise came from London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and there was both love and anger on social media.

Takeaway: Jigsaw had lived the reality they were weighing in on. Immigration is a positive and necessary part of how they do business. Taking a stance when your brand’s version of events is in conflict with the main political narrative of the country is an authentic way to involve yourself. You’re basing the company’s politics on the certainty of the brand’s own experience.

Because the tide is with them

Climate change is increasingly on the political agenda. Since the Trump presidency though, America’s stance on global warming has suffered, culminating in their withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Tiffany & Co, who occupy the storefront at the bottom of Trump Towers, weren’t afraid to call for the president to do better.

They replaced their usual spot in the NY Times with these words rather than pictures of their jewellery. It’s a bold move that takes aim at the American government and the President himself, and shows a willingness to be controversial.

That said, the message itself is polite and courteous, and Tiffany & Co knew they’d be in the majority before they made the move. A full page letter signed by twenty-four companies (including Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, Facebook, Google and Adobe) ran in the NY Times too, addressing Trump directly and criticising his climate change policy.

Takeaway: It can relieve pressure and lower the stakes if you look for allies before your brand makes a political declaration. If you’re a part of a group, any negative coverage will be shared, and the statement is likely to have more impact and appear more universally agreed upon.

If the move aligns with your internal goals

Airbnb’s reaction to Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ was swift. The advert was released during the Super Bowl and overtly criticised recent political events and launched the hashtag #weaccept.

The advert is filled with faces from all over the world, that reflect Airbnb’s customers everywhere. It’s a clear example of where the political stance they’re taking may be controversial, but the narrative they’re providing is welcoming to everyone. It manages to criticise without isolating; it’s message is one of kindness and acceptance.

The company promised $4m over four years to the International Rescue Committee to support displaced people across the world. They stated that the service would “start with refugees, disaster survivors, and relief workers, though we want to accommodate many more types of displaced people over time.”

Takeaway: If the politics you’re reacting against is harsh, you’re free to offer kindness instead. Coupled with a genuine statement of intent via internal operations and donations, getting political in this way can be an opportunity to show consumers that you share their values and forge emotional connections.

Things to consider

If your brand feels compelled to make their views known on a political issue, there are several considerations to bear in mind to negotiate what can be a minefield.

  1. Consider the issue from all perspectives so that you’re prepared for the backlash. The criticism and social media storms will be easier to weather if you’ve already anticipated them.
  2. Thoroughly vet any individual candidates you’re planning to back. There is always danger that they could U-turn, or reveal views that you don’t support in the future (as was the case for Natural Foods) so don’t leave yourself open to blame by association.
  3. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can choose to support a specific political position, rather than aligning yourself with one political party. You avoid tying yourself to a basket of various positions, and it’s a clearer, distilled message for consumers.
  4. Consider the product(s) or services you sell. While some easily lend themselves to political alignment, it may be a good idea to keep quiet if the link between you and politics has to be forced. You can make a difference via CSR if you don’t think your brand naturally lends itself to getting political.
  5. Does it make sense right now? If your business is in its early stages, it may be better not to risk alienating new customers. Grow in strength and standing, and you can aspire to making a statement once you have a sturdier platform.
  6. Practice what you preach. Make sure your internal policies are in line with the stance you’re taking. Hollow gestures are a surefire way to anger consumers, and you should only be reaping the publicity benefits of getting involved if you truly care!

If you decide to run a political campaign, or start voicing political views on social media and you want to test out how they’ll come across with consumers across the political spectrum, get in touch with us today.

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