Your razor company, go-to coffee shop and favorite shoe brand have something in common: they’re willing to get political. And for good reason. Consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets, a trend likely to increase as the 2020 election approaches.
It’s never been more important for brands to have a smart strategy for political engagement. Our firm’s recent survey found that 64% of Americans want their favorite companies and brands to have political views that align with their own. Outside research also supports this: According to one report, 92% of those surveyed said that it’s important for companies to “take positions on issues that are in line with their values as a company.”
While getting political can pay dividends, it also comes with risks: 44% of Americans say they’d stop doing business with a company whose political position they disagreed with. A Global Strategy Group survey found that 38% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans are willing to boycott companies that don’t align with their political beliefs.
With the stakes high, it’s critical that any decision to get political involves careful consideration and calculation. This is something our firm puts into practice regularly, as we work with clients to develop the right strategy, messaging and tactics for engagement on political and social issues, and otherwise protecting their images in high-stakes situations. Below are five questions companies must know how to answer when taking a political stand:
1. What’s the ‘why’ behind your decision?
Be clear about the impetus and end goal for taking a political stand — this should always guide your communications strategy. For instance, a company that speaks out because an unfavorable political outcome would be an existential business threat must strike a different tone than one taking a moral stance. No matter the circumstances surrounding your company’s activism, it’s critical to have a strong grasp of the objective and its importance for the business.
2. What makes you qualified to speak out?
The public won’t stand for inauthenticity. Our survey found that more than three-quarters of Americans think companies should only speak out on political or social issues that relate to their services or products. If that connection can’t be made convincingly, audiences may see your statements or actions as opportunistic rather than genuine, a lesson that brands like Pepsi and Gillette have learned the hard way.
3. Who do you need on your side?
Your political stance won’t please everyone, which is why it’s critical to understand how key audience groups are likely to react. For instance, a statement that resonates with employees could draw backlash from a subset of customers. Trade-offs like these are inevitable in today’s divided climate, but sometimes strengthening support and loyalty among your most strategic audiences is worth alienating others. We saw this calculus play out in Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, which had a positive business impact despite drawing intense backlash from some corners.
4. Are you the right messenger?
Even if an issue makes sense given your work and key audiences, brand activism can backfire if your company is not the right champion for it. For example, Gillette’s “toxic masculinity” ad drew attention to the “pink tax” on its products for women; H&M has faced accusations of hypocrisy when speaking out on fair wages and sustainability; and State Street Corporation, whose “Fearless Girl” statue turned heads, was exposed for underpaying women. A complicated scenario is not always a reason to avoid getting involved, but it’s important to consider if anything could undermine your credibility and do more harm than good.
5. What is your risk tolerance?
Getting political can have rewards, but can your company also accept the risks that come along with your decision to take a stand? Your answer should determine the types of activities that are on the table and how far to go in joining a political conversation. Go through the “what if” scenarios, and be clear-eyed about the potential negative consequences of any action you’re thinking about taking.
The strong demand for brand activism has made it a smart bet for companies to show through their words and actions that their values align with issues that matter to their audiences. Getting political is never fully free from risk, but brands can come out ahead if they think carefully before going all in.