Why Disney, and every other brand, should always stay out of politics
Disney took a stand against Florida governor Ron DeSantis and, frankly, they shouldn’t have, writes Brand Keys founder Robert Passikoff. Here’s why brands should stick to business excellence and avoid unwinnable political fights.
Has Disney damaged its brand by setting foot in the political arena?
You can’t have missed it. It’s been in all the news. The governor and state legislators revoked a 55-year-old arrangement with Disney (the state’s largest private employer) that gave the company a special self-governing status (that allows the resort to function as its own municipal government) for its Disney World complex. A brief precis for those of you who might have missed it.
In March Governor DeSantis signed the ‘Parental Rights In Education’ law, aka the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, cheered by conservatives and booed by LGBTQ+ activists and educators. The Disney corporation was initially silent about it but then, compelled by employees who staged walkouts and social media campaigns to protest the company’s response (or lack thereof) to the Florida legislation limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, its chief executive officer made some comments criticizing the bill. DeSantis did not appreciate that and, in a fundraising email, wrote: “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy.”
But that reaction was axiomatic. Disney took a position on the new Florida legislation, and DeSantis reacted. He called them “Woke Disney.”
But no surprise there. Because here’s another axiom you should eternally follow: embroiling your brand in politics isn’t a smart idea. It’s wrong in so many ways, it’s hard to explain without charts and a flashlight. If you do, it’s always a lose-lose situation. Not sometimes. Not often. Always.
Research has shown consumer brands are – or should be – apolitical. I’m talking politics, not corporate social responsibility. There’s a difference. You don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican to like Mickey Mouse, or movies including Frozen or The Avengers, or the concept of sustainability. But these days, the minute you have the brand take a political stand, one group of consumers or another is going to hate you. Not sometimes. Not often. Always.
But here’s what decades of research has shown and what we’ve always advised: if you’re a chief executive officer, support whichever party you want. That’s the American way. Just leave your brand out of it. Contribute discreetly to whichever party you want. Or both parties. Just leave your brand out of it. K Street in Washington, DC is full of lobbyists more than willing to take your money and support any cause, party or politician you want. Just leave your brand out of it.
I’ve been doing research related to marketing and brand loyalty for a long time and I’ve never, ever run across any consumer brand value-set or KPI list that includes politically ideological items. This means equal rights or voting rights, immigration or minimum wage – or LGBTQ+ issues. It isn’t that those issues aren’t important. They are. It’s just that they’re not values that are actually components of any category other than ‘politics.’ And when chief execs intentionally or accidentally draw the brand into the political arena, it never ends well for the brand in the marketing arena.
This is apparently not an axiom Bill Penzey, chief executive officer of Penzey’s Spices, is aware of. Penzey has long used his ‘A Note from Bill’ email to customers to launch attacks on Republicans and send out political messages. Right after the Black Lives Matter marches, he sent a newsletter accusing GOP voters of fantasizing about killing African Americans, calling them “a bunch of racists.”
On balance, Penzey acknowledged his allegation had cost his business a substantial number of newsletter subscribers – 40,005, in fact. This was offset by 30,000 new fans. But you really don’t need a calculator to figure out the brand lost 10,005 subscribers. He ended up trying to make up lost business offering a buy-two-$25-gift-cards-for-$35 promotion, writing “this might make it a bit easier for you to share some and possibly get a few good new customers to replace the ones we’ve lost.”
The move reflects a wider trend where companies that have opted to chime in on political issues – or, in Disney’s case, have consequently seen pushback from some customers. In some cases, extreme pushback. Ben & Jerry’s, another example of a company defying the axiom to not embroil your brand in politics, saw consumer backlash after announcing it was halting sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem because it was “inconsistent with our values.”
Penzey wrote: “From what we’ve heard in the way of feedback a lot of our Republican customers wish we would stay out of politics, but they are pretty honest about the problems with open racism in their party. So, on one hand they wish we would tone down the racism thing, but on the other hand we have really good spices and they are not going to sacrifice those.”
Unfortunately for Penzey, it turns out they did.
Robert Passikoff is founder and president of Brand Keys.