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‘The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over’: brand communication in the age of Trump

Brands can no longer sit on the fence when it comes to politics.

Marketers must take on bigger roles in helping shape brand narratives, communicate values and advise executives navigating new terrain.

In the Trump era, the longtime practice of sitting on the fence is over for brands who must not only know their political values, but openly share them. But that’s not to say brands must take strong stances on every issue. Instead, they should speak in broader terms about issues tied to their values and avoid calling out any specific political figures or voter blocks.

That was according to a panel hosted by the Business Marketing Association at the Wall Street Journal on Thursday (March 30).

‘There is no way to take no risk now’

Michael Maslansky, chief executive of communication strategy firm Maslansky + Partners, pointed to his own clients, many of whom he said like to sit on the fence because they don’t want to do any harm or alienate any consumers and their lawyers have always counseled them to stay away from controversy. But that’s actually a worse position to take now.

“The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over,” Maslansky said. “You have to pick a spot, an audience, a set of values you want to live by.”

And the brands that build values into who they are can actually end up attracting customers, he added.

Brands just have to be careful not to go fishing for issues outside of their core focus. And that has been tempting ever since Oreo’s real-time Super Bowl moment when marketers became fixated on newsjacking, said Ron Guirguis, chief executive of US operations for global PR firm MSLGroup.

“It’s fine if you’re Oreo in the Super Bowl, but it’s dangerous if it’s a random issue and not tied to your brand and you decide to jump in to seize the zeitgeist,” Guirguis said.

Instead, companies need to evaluate their audiences and figure out how much risk to take.

“There is no way to take no risk now. Saying nothing is a risk,” Maslansky said.

Guriguis agreed everything brands choose to do – and not to do – is now seen through a partisan lens.

“You end up with choice – you can avoid risk by hunkering down or [you can] lean in,” he said.

For instance, moderator Jessi Hempel, head of editorial for tech publication Backchannel, pointed to a sign in a dressing room at Urban Outfitters in New York that called it an “all-gender dressing room".

Maslansky said this was a conscious effort on the brand’s part to make a policy statement – rather than simply saying it was unisex – and because Urban Outfitters is a brand that knows its audience is younger and more urban and more likely to be concerned about gender issues, there was very little risk for the brand in making that statement, he added.

‘It’s not about Trump v. Hillary anymore’

However, it’s not as simple as deciding to speak to Blue State or Red State customers and formulating one of two narratives.

Instead, Maslansky said companies need to define their brands by the psychographics of their audiences in order to attract more of the right tribe – perhaps more so now than ever. But brands must also be open-minded and accepting of all consumers and think about values in broad terms. What’s more, brands must separate these values from the 2016 candidates.

Guirguis said brands should also avoid assuming if consumers are in favor of one policy or issue, they must all therefore also be opposed to another.

“It’s not about Trump v. [Clinton] anymore,” Maslansky added, pointing to Chick-fil-A, which he said is a brand that has done well by being itself – even if that doesn’t resonate with large chunks of progressive America. And that includes opening locations in New York.

And, as Guirguis noted, the media and advertising industry tends to be concentrated in places that didn’t vote for Trump, but their clients are all over the US, which underscores the importance of knowing how to communicate broadly.

Internal audiences matter, too

At the same time, brands should only take positions on issues core to their values and/or when the audience expects them to say something – and that audience includes both customers and employees, Guirguis added.

In fact, internal audiences are perhaps equally as important now. They also have a voice – and they, too, can revolt, which is what happened when Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick had to step down from Trump’s economic advisory council.

And Guirguis noted when it comes to a hot button Trump issue like the travel ban, most companies didn’t issue public statements, but they did issue statements to their employees. Generally speaking, Guirguis said if an issue arises that your employees or customers expect you to engage in because it is inherent to your values, you should do so – as well as if an action from the Trump administration threatens your business.

But customers, too, can – and do – voice disapproval over company positions or actions, which sometimes leads to calls for boycotts, which was the case with companies like Budweiser, Nordstrom and Uber. However, it won’t necessarily have a negative business impact any more than before Trump took office. And, per Maslansky, that’s because most of these movements are ineffectual.

“It’s not that effective to get people to stop choosing a company,” Maslansky said. “What is happening is they are actively choosing to do business with companies based on what the business stands for.”

And that, again, is why it’s so important for brands to actively communicate their values.

“The businesses that grow faster will be [the ones that are] clearer about who they are,” Maslansky added.

Marketers have to take on bigger roles

But we’re also not living in a world in which the facts set you free anymore, Maslansky said. In fact, there’s dissociation between facts and reality with Trump, which shows there’s not as much value in expertise. Instead, it’s all about how you tell your story, he added.

Per Maslansky, the biggest lesson and opportunity is communications and marketing teams have to take bigger roles in shaping brand narratives – and that has to be a higher priority across the board. No longer should companies be ruled by lawyers and take no risks.

“[Communication professionals] have to be counseling CEOs. CEOs have to be better communicators or mistakes will haunt them for the rest of their careers,” Maslansky said.

In other words, Maslansky said CEOs should be properly prepared by their marketing and communications departments so they are not searching for their values after they make a comment that gets them into trouble. And that’s in part because issues like the bathroom bill or the gun bill are emotional issues – and it’s hard to cobble together a statement in the moment.

“The problem is when something emerges that you aren’t prepared for, it becomes an emotional response,” Maslansky said. “Preparation becomes that much more important.”

‘You want to broaden out the value’

And when it comes to responding to Trump tweets in particular, Guirguis’ advice was simply for brands to take a deep breath and evaluate where they are.

But this may also present an opportunity to make policy statements and demonstrate values without taking on Trump himself. Or, as Maslansky put it, there have been situations in which companies have been emboldened to speak out – not necessarily against Trump per se, but on related issues like bans, immigration, etc.

“You want to broaden out the value,” Maslansky said. “Look at the statements to the travel ban – they run the gamut from explicit [opposition]… to the importance of having talent from all over the world. [The latter is] a clear statement, but not so narrow that it is getting deep into politics. You can do that on immigration, diversity, [guns and LGBT issues]. Most values you can broaden so the majority of the population will stand with you.”

But, Maslansky cautioned, brands should never explicitly use the word “Trump”, or “Trump voter”.

“That’s a bad idea,” Maslansky said. “Talk about values and issues, but never about the president.”

Guirguis agreed.

“It’s not about the person. Companies can disagree with the administration, but not Trump,” Guriguis added.

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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