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Sorry, Trump: It’s brands that can make America great again

Donald Trump

Conventional wisdom dictates brands steer clear of politics, but in the immortal words of President-Elect Donald Trump, “IT WILL CHANGE!!!!”

Trump was actually tweeting about the divided nation he intends to unify, but he could have just as easily been talking about marketing best practices at the dawn of his presidency.

“For quite some time, there have been companies that are more blue and more red, but very rarely in marketing do they dive into political issues,” said Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. “It’s the third rail of branding – don’t touch politics.”

Anne Bologna, chief strategy officer at digital marketing agency iCrossing, agreed it’s a good rule to live by for most brands with “very, very few exceptions,” like perhaps ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, which was founded on a social platform and could theoretically get away with addressing political issues if those issues are core to its values. Like, say, participating in –- and getting arrested as part of –- the Democracy Awakening event in Washington DC in April 2016, as well as launching a product to raise awareness about climate change or changing the name of an ice cream to celebrate the right of all couples to marry.

“It all comes down to a simple idea that we believe in whole-heartedly: if you care about something, you have to be willing to risk it all – your reputation, your values, your business – for the greater good,” the brand wrote in a blog post.

Fighting fires

But, willingly or not, it’s not just bleeding heart ice cream makers from Vermont addressing social and political issues anymore.

In the 2016 election, for example, we saw brands like Skittles and Tic Tacs drawn into the political conversation, revealing opinions on social issues – but only after their names were invoked by Trump and his son.

Then, when an executive’s comments on trade policy inspired a neo-Nazi blogger to dub it the “official shoes of white people,” New Balancetook a stance against bigotry. And, of course, let’s not forget the campaign donation that inspired the “Buy L.L. Bean” tweet the New York Times called “a full-throated endorsement of the company [by the President-Elect],” which it noted is “a rare and highly unusual step for someone elected to the nation’s highest office” – and, as a perhaps obvious side note, could very well indicate consumers are about to experience a more branded presidency as well.

Meanwhile, New Balance shoes have been burned and flushed down the toilet while at least one teenage Twitter user noted plans to find and throw away the L.L. Bean backpack she used in elementary school as calls for boycotts crescendo in the background.

Both New Balance and L.L. Bean have released statements about values and respect in the aftermath of their respective Trump-related crises, but the Washington Post, in covering the New Balance brouhaha, may have put it best when it noted, “We live in crazy times.”

Conceding “this perhaps could be a sweeping over-generalization,” Bologna said she expects one of the most valued positions at any company will be the head of communications and/or PR while Trump is in the White House.

“That team will have to be at high alert pretty much 24/7,” she said. “How you respond is key.”

And perhaps not surprisingly, Bologna said she also expects to see more cautiousness among brands as decades worth of work by their marketing teams could be obliterated by a single comment.

“The first thing we’ve been recommending is [that] brands have to think like publicists today. There are some companies that we’ve heard have literally shifted their own PR teams to be working throughout the night – they know Trump is on Twitter in the middle of the night,” Bologna said. “We live in unprecedented times, but what hasn’t changed is all marketers have to define [a brand] ethos and a code of conduct and stick to it.”

And that’s in part because marketers are facing a reality in which the rules they live by are being rewritten in real time.

“[Trump] has established a new set of rules in terms of how he handles public discourse…I think you’re going to see a new rule book four years from now about what brands have had to deal with,” Bologna said. “There’s going to be new stuff in there.”

Fighting for change

And it won’t just be on crisis management.

In fact, in times of uncertainty, brand messages can help unify citizens and drive change.

For his part, Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer at advertising agency 360i, said times of turmoil can paradoxically yield progress.

“Progress of any kind – career, personal, corporate – is never an orderly, logical, linear progression and so the chaos that we’re seeing right now in politics presents an opportunity for brands and businesses to evolve how they engage with the world,” Maicon said.

In fact, Maicon said he thinks brands will become more political and take stands moving forward, but he clarified, “‘Political’ in the sense that brands are making choices for the common good.”

Historically, Maicon said we’ve seen brands that wanted to be part of the spirit of the times during polarizing eras “reframe the argument and strip it down to its core,” thereby “[exposing] truths and [bringing] the uncommitted or uninterested along in a way that pulls them towards a movement.”

Look at fashion brand Benetton in the 1990s with its Pieta print ad, which Maicon said used a photograph of AIDS activist David Kirby to make a statement about love.

“In doing so, they used a branded space to put all Americans on the same side of the debate: for love and life,” he added.

Similarly, in 1995, athletic brand Nike reframed the conversation about Title IX -- the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education –- and made it clear if you believed the brand’s claim, “If you have a body, you are an athlete,” you needed to believe it for every body, male and female, Maicon said.

“Smart brands will think about how their values are reflected in the debates of our times. CPG, QSR and many other categories have brands that speak to love, life, connection, moments spent with friends,” Maicon said. “As those interactions with those we love (but don’t always like) become increasingly charged, how will your brand stretch beyond the individual good of brand sales, but also speak to the common good in a way that moves people forward?”

For her part, Bologna said she thinks brands may find the confidence to weigh in on social issues for social good purely as a contrast to what has been a tremendous amount of divisiveness in the US and we may see more brands wanting to push for social good to help fuel progress. That, she said, goes back to the power of companies and brands in society and the extent to which brands can play a positive role.

She called this the “Bernie Sanders factor,” saying, “He is an example of the power of anyone or any brand or company that decides to be a pure force for good…I do think [brands] will reap rewards from doing that.”

Fighting for core values

We’ve already seen a handful of brands take stands on more recent issues, like the NBA moving the 2016 All-Star Game out of North Carolina in response to the state’s transgender bathroom law, as well as HP CMO Antonio Lucio demanding greater diversity at the ad agencies his brand works with -- and expecting to see formal plans and action within a specified timeframe.

There’s also Starbucks and Race Together, the 2015 program it called “a year-long effort designed to stimulate conversation, compassion and positive action regarding race in America.”

And Bologna pointed to Honey Maid’s This is Wholesome campaign -- and the brand’s response to backlash -- as a “brilliant example of a brand understanding what its brand platform is and sticking with that and dealing with controversy in a smart and clever way.”

These are brands that have defined their core values and executed messaging accordingly – and they can reap additional benefits as a result, she added.

“When [brands] attach themselves or advocate for social issues core to those values, my belief is it will always come around and be good for the company,” Bologna added. “Doing good by being good.”

Another example is CVS’ 2014 decision to stop selling cigarettes in order to reinforce its brand ethos about health and wellness.

“They took a significant financial hit…[but they] made up for it in good will that manifested itself and they sold other parts of the enterprise,” Bologna said.

Fighting for diversity and sustainability

To be clear, most of these examples pre-date even Trump’s announcement of his intent to run for president, so he alone is not responsible for making brands more vocal on social issues. In fact, the seeds of this movement can be traced back to the early days of social media.

Bologna said we live in what she calls a C2B economy in which consumers are in control – “this is the first generation in history that has the technology to curate experiences and purchases” – and who can take brands down as they see fit.

Indeed, Quint said this movement is largely due to social platforms and greater transparency between what corporate America is doing and what consumers see and want.

“The reality is since [2005] with Dell Hell…[and] United Breaks Guitars, one person making a complaint has been able to tarnish the reputation of an entire company…one individual creating one song and the company is in crisis. Not deep crisis, but it has this PR issue they have to deal with because of one customer complaint,” Quint said. “That’s what’s driving the choices of these brands to make comments on sociopolitical issues. They’re now in the crosshairs of stakeholders that can critique them.”

In other words, per Quint, consumers are increasingly looking for brands that share their values – and they aren’t afraid to voice their displeasure and withhold capital if they don’t like what they see.

This is particularly true when it comes to younger consumers.

In fact, Quint noted millennials offer lots of potential lifetime value for brands, so it behooves the latter to carefully consider issues the former cares about, such as diversity and sustainability.

“They care about those [issues] deeply,” Quint said. “Whenever Trump and the federal government [do] things that attack those areas, I do expect to see brands again [taking action]…I see a trend growing there [with brands] putting [stakes] in the ground – ‘We believe in X’ – and in moments where there’s government action that might cast doubt on their commitment, they might be able to make statements a la the NBA. [The NBA is] not going to ban the Charlotte Hornets – they won’t go that far – but they’ll take a stance with a particular game and take away added revenue. That’s their slap in the face.”

Similarly, even though only 37% of this generation voted for Trump, we shouldn’t brace for a deluge of anti-Trump sentiment among companies looking to appease 63% of Generation Z. And even for other generations, a radically different president will not necessarily yield radically different brand messages – at least not yet.

Instead, expect to see brands to dip their toes in the sociopolitical waters in perhaps more subtle ways, such as talking about togetherness – particularly around Inauguration Day. That’s what beer brand Tecate did in its #TecateBeerWall spot, although, as a challenger brand, Tecate had more freedom to directly address a proposed Trump policy, Quint noted.

However, if the Trump administration puts out statements or policies against climate change or water purity/scarcity in particular, Quint expects brands to take stronger stances as these issues directly impact many businesses that can’t sell products if they don’t have the raw materials to make them.

“Sustainability is an issue [brands] care about,” Quint said. “It affects their operations and [they know] millennials are much more environmentally conscious than older generations.”

At the same time, Quint said there are still enough Democrats in Congress to filibuster and/or Republicans who won’t necessarily support their own party and/or Trump on certain issues, so we could also see a “rather dysfunctional government” over the next four years, which may allow brands to remain on the sidelines if they’re reluctant to break from tradition.

Then again, who knows what Trump’s going to tweet next.

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