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The politics of branding in 2016

The politics of branding in 2016

What better time to talk a bit about branding and the complex ‘politics’ involved if a brand hopes to stay relevant to as many demographics as possible.

The 2016 Presidential Campaign will probably go down in history as the most divisive, toxic and mean-spirited campaign in modern politics — assuming, of course, that the 2020 campaign doesn’t sink even lower than this year’s.

The 2016 campaign quickly became a referendum on Donald Trump and his views on race, immigration and open trade in America. Trump, who let’s not forget represents a global brand with global customers, entered the race with a blistering attack on Mexicans rapists and drug dealers pouring over the border and a promise to halt illegal immigration by building a wall on the American – Mexican border. Trump effectively called out an entire population and labeled them in the darkest terms possible.

While brands rarely come out with political positions, a brand can and does send out a definite political message in terms of how it communicates with its customers and prospects. A CEO who endorses a certain political candidate sends a signal to the world that the brand will be closely aligned with the policies of that candidate.

Consider the case of John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, who published an infamous attack on the Affordable Care Act in the Wall Street Journal and essentially compared the policy to fascism. He neglected to factor in that a good number of his customers have liberal leanings and would be offended by his extreme take on a policy designed to provide healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans. While the blowback may have been minimal (at first), it exposed a concerning disconnect between Mackey, who founded Whole Foods, and the brand’s perception among its diverse, well-educated customer base. Indeed, there were reports of many customers who stopped shopping at Whole Foods and promised never shop there again.

In the case of Trump’s business brand, which takes the form of hotels, resorts and a variety of Trump licensed luxury goods, his own politics have been adversely impacted, with hotel bookings in some of his exclusive properties down by nearly 60% in the first half of 2016 as reported by online travel site Hipmunk. It’s not a stretch to speculate that many cancellations have come from groups alienated by Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric including wealthy Latin Americans traveling to the U.S., Europeans horrified by Trump’s protectionist invectives, and even members of the LGBTQ who might previously have spent their tourist dollars at a Trump resort.

The question for brands and the C-suite in charge of them is whether or not to court a specific policy or candidate even if that means alienating a core group or influential subset of your customer base. In the case of Whole Foods, the council from the company’s internal communications professionals was no doubt one of caution and outright warnings, all of which unfortunately were not heeded by Mackey.

For companies that do decide to embrace a policy, for instance how eBay and a slew of other companies protested North Carolina’s passing of a law preventing cities from creating non-discrimination policies based on gender identity, it should be done with two important things in mind:

  1. The action or position taken is for a cause that is less restrictive than a previous law, and
  2. The action or position taken is consistent with your brand and won’t alienate an influential customer group.

When Chick-fil-A started publicly supporting the blocking of same-sex marriage initiatives it created a backlash among the LGBTQ community and there was in an immediate media firestorm.

Rather that back down, Chick-fil-A stuck to its guns and even won the support — and a spike in business — from conservative leaning customers who shared the same policy viewpoint. While it was certainly not as damaging for the restaurant chain given their popularity in the conservative south, it did tarnish the brand in the eyes of LGBTQ and some liberal-leaning customers.

It is imperative to know your customer base and ensure you factor in the potential damage taking a given political position can have if it alienates — as it surely will — a customer group. Make sure it is consistent with your brand values as the blowback could be even more severe than anticipated. Remember the Dixie Chicks coming out against George W. Bush at the height of the Iraq War, saying that they were ashamed the President was from Texas? The group’s main fan base was made up of country music fans, which are well known for supporting conservative causes. The result was that the band’s meteoric popularity came crashing down as fans demanded radio stations stop playing their music and threats poured in and concerts ticket sales, once always sold out, dried up overnight.

Moral of the story? Know your customer. Know your cause. Know your brand values. Make sure all three align.

Anything short of that and the brand will run the risk of getting Trumped.

By Dave Manzer: Dave is the president of Swyft. With offices in Austin and Denver, Swyft is a marketing communications and PR agency serving technology startups and fast-growth enterprises. Dave founded PR over Coffee, is a mentor at Startup Aggieland and just launched Startup over Coffee, a crowdsourced map for startups and startup professionals in Austin.


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