Just a few months ago, companies could stay above the political fray. Now, that is no longer true. At this moment in history, to be in the world is to be political.
As recent controversies surrounding Bud Light and Target have demonstrated, gone are the days when a company could get by with issuing a belated, carefully neutral statement in response to a political issue. Now, some Americans demand that organizations behave like activists.
To avoid inflicting lasting reputational damage, communicators need to quickly decide whether to react to divisive political events. But thinking ahead is preferable to issuing reactive, inauthentic statements.
Given the rapid pace of change and the harsh partisan rhetoric that seeps into even seemingly innocuous issues, there is reason to believe that brands and politics will become even more intertwined — especially as the 2024 presidential election nears. Now is the time to consider your organization’s values, map where they align and misalign with those of stakeholders and then implement a political-communication strategy for your brand.
For communicators, there are urgent questions.
As consumers look for companies that share their values, brands should decide proactively how and when to speak up.
America’s political polarization raises urgent questions that communication leaders must address. Among them, do brands have a responsibility to develop a public political strategy? What are the risks of engaging with social and political issues? Should brands express their values by supporting political issues that might divide their customers?
While brands do not have a fiduciary obligation to engage in political discourse, they do have a responsibility to uphold their stated mission and values. A mission in action means living organizational values through daily decisions, not just by reacting to crises.
For companies, demonstrative actions might range from internal processes to hiring practices and how a brand shapes — and is shaped by — the external environment. A corporate mission in action means being proactive about how the organization demonstrates its values to the world.
According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, quality and price remain two of the top-three purchasing criteria for consumers, cited 86% and 61% of the time, respectively. In addition, 57% of consumers surveyed say they are more loyal to brands that commit to addressing social inequities.
Tory Burch, a women’s fashion brand, says its purpose is to empower women and women entrepreneurs. The company was among the first to publicly speak against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022, a case that returned the question of abortion rights to the states. Though perhaps viewed as divisive by some, the company’s stance was genuine and consistent with its values and brand.
You can’t please everyone.
When taking political positions, brands should be prepared to irritate at best — and to alienate at worst. Stakeholders will have varying political views that don’t always match those of the brand itself. On political issues, a brand will not make everyone happy. What a company does, or doesn’t do, can spark fierce reactions.
Consider the ongoing fallout over the pressure that Disney faced from employees to respond to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March 2022. The act’s champions insist it is a much-needed reform, while opponents argue that the law discriminates against LGBTQ+ people because it prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity at certain grade levels.
Disney’s decision to oppose the Florida law resulted in it losing its status as an “independent special district,” which had allowed Disney World to operate like its own county government. Many parents also opposed Disney’s stance against the Florida law. The company and governor remain embattled, with no resolution to their feud in sight.
The question then becomes: How does a company stand up for its values even when doing so might prove costly? Hobby Lobby is a brand that operates according to its Christian values, taking actions that sometimes prove controversial. Critics have called for boycotts against Hobby Lobby, but the company remains steadfast in its beliefs.
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Companies face risk when dissonance arises between the brand’s publicly stated values and its actions. Before embedding values into your organization, be sure those values don’t contradict the organization’s actions. Recently, Target has been under fire for its Pride collection and has responded to some consumers by removing certain controversial products from its shelves.
After condemning members of Congress who had voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, many companies donated money to those same lawmakers, according to a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group. Companies that contradict their stated values risk damaging their brands and losing consumer trust.
Clear messages on complex issues are important.
Another risk that companies face when taking public stances on political issues is whether the organization has the resources and capabilities it needs to follow through on its stated values.
For example, many brands denounced the Russian government when it invaded Ukraine. But as CBS News reported in May 2022, Hard Rock Cafe and Sbarro were among more than two dozen U.S. corporations that continued to do business in Russia after the invasion.
To avoid causing reputational harm, communicators for these companies and others need to craft messages that explain the complexities of the situation in language that’s clear and easy to understand.
Communication should be rooted in values.
Brands that stand back when social and political issues emerge may be sending the unintended message that they don’t believe in their values enough to take a stand. Determine your brand’s core values and then infuse those principles into everything the brand does. When values are clear, the actions needed to carry out those values become clear as well.
Next, be brave, like Hobby Lobby. Standing up for your brand’s values is not for the faint of heart. Gain consensus from your organization’s leadership and prepare to weather the storm.
Finally, determine how far your organization needs to go to put its purpose into action. What will it take for you to sleep well at night, knowing that your organization stands for something?
Jacqueline Babb is a senior lecturer and director of the integrated marketing communications program at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She writes about nonprofit branding and purpose marketing as a regular contributor to Adweek and Brandingmag.
Matthew S. Dabros is an associate professor of political science and public policy at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill. He specializes in American government and public policy, focusing most recently on enduring problems of political representation in the United States.
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