The Perils of Mixing Business and Politics

by MARIUS FLAGET, analyst ReputationInc Oslo

In the wake of the US presidential election, a number of well-known enterprises and brands have gone public to express loathing and disgust for Donald Trump: Mark Zuckerberg has positioned himself as clearly anti-Trump, Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial had a not-so-subtle anti-Trump theme and Starbucks publically declared they would hire 10 000 refugees for their coffee shops over the next years. In addition, 97 different companies such as Uber, Apple, Airbnb, Netflix, Snap and Twitter, have signed a petition against the ‘Muslim ban’ of the Trump administration.

One might suspect that the political arena has become a fashionable field for companies who wish to strengthen their profile or brand. And why not? Donald Trump is after all being characterised as the least popular president in recent times. Under such circumstances, it would seem like a safe bet to take a stance against him, whilst also appearing young, cool, socially aware and conscious in the eyes of the consumer.

During the US election campaign last year, Matt LeBretton, of the sneaker company New Balance, made the mistake of making what appeared to be a positive comment about Donald Trump. The reactions were imminent and pretty soon New Balance were in a social media storm where people were posting images of themselves throwing away or burning their shoes. To add insult, competing sneaker brand Reebok stated that they would provide anyone who ruined their shoes with a pair fresh Reebok replacements. The underlying implications appears to be quite clear: Being pro-Trump is bad for your reputation and being anti-Trump is good for your reputation.

Things are, however, slightly more complicated than that as consumer sympathies span much of the political spectrum. While Trump might not be a particularly popular president, he still received roughly half of the votes in the election. Should you as a business therefore decide to take sides, there is a fifty percent chance that you can attract or deter a customer relationship. Starbucks learned this the hard way when they came to realise that while people may like their coffee with cinnamon, they prefer it without politics. Their statement declaring to hire 10 000 refugees as baristas backfired, and company ended with a boycott from Trump-supporters, a social media storm and a significant stock price fall.                   

Similarly, Audi in Sweden took a beating when they last year hired radical feminist Kakan Hermansson to promote the new Audi Q2. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that hiring a radical feminist to promote a car model most likely to be purchased by white middle aged men was not a good idea. The campaign quickly turned into a disaster and Audi’s reputation in Sweden suffered a major blow.                                                                   

All of this might make it seem tempting for a company to stay away from the public sphere and never touch anything political. But, while companies that stick up for their values may be in danger of alienating either side of the political divide, speaking up on political matters can also be an opportunity. Companies often display their commitment to diversity, the environment, human rights or fair trade, helping them connect with customers who increasingly make purchases based on values. By carefully assessing who you are as a company and who your customers are, your organisation can be successful in making a political statement, provided company values and goals align. So while jumping on the Trump train may be going one step too far, there are be plenty of better-suited and worthy causes out there to get behind and support. 

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