Commentary

Is It A Good Idea For Brands To Take Political Stands?

With all the pressure from major brands and companies rallying against SB 1062 (the recent bill in Arizona allowing businesses to refuse service to gay or other parties if it was against their religion), Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed the controversial bill.

Big companies like Apple, Delta, Marriott and American Airlines all sent letters strongly urging the Arizona Governor to veto the bill and even the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Major League Baseball publicly opposed it. Is it me or does there seems to be a lot more brands/CEOs of brands choosing a side on an issue and taking a stand?

The modern-day CEO seems like a celebrity these days. Mark Zuckerberg, Howard Schultz, Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and even Mark Cuban are all household names.  You see them engage with the public on a regular basis, whether participating in a Reddit AMA (like Bill Gates did) or through updates and interactions on Facebook and Twitter.

These leaders and their brands are making bold statements and dropping bombshells around social and political issues regularly. Has this phenomenon always been this rampant, or is it just that everything is more visible in the 24/7 news and social media era we live in today? There’s no doubt that captains of industry have been activists and puppeteers in the past, but often their opinions and stances came through donations, quiet side project or initiatives that occurred behind closed doors. While that business still transpires, there is something more open, more authentic going on now. More CEOs and brands are baring their souls in public.

These days, many of the controversial social and political issues seem to stem from marriage equality, gun rights and civil rights for the Gay and Lesbian community. 25 big name brands received some backlash for supporting LGBT rights.  And in the last couple of years, we have seen leaders of big brands take stands on either side of these issues. In 2012, Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A took some heat but also received some support when he announced his stance in opposition of gay marriage.

Last year, Adolphus Busch IV, heir and former CEO of Anheuser-Busch, also took a stand to support background checks and wrote a letter to the NRA to immediately remove his name from all membership roles.  Howard Schultz of Starbucks hit both of those sensitive subjects last year.  In March, he vehemently defended marriage equality citing the principle of diversity and even told shareholders who opposed his stance that they can sell their shares. Then in September, he wrote an open letter requesting all Starbucks customers to not bring firearms to his stores or outdoor seating areas even in “open carry” states.

I am always curious as to the motives of big business owners and CEOs taking such a strong stand and putting their brand on the line. The impetus to do so isn’t spawned from simply a bottom-line perspective, as customers surely stand to be alienated. Also, I want to believe Howard Schultz as he boldly decried, it’s about principle. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much they consider the business implications of the attrition that can be generated by such statements. Are they taking the calculated risk that much of their target audience is in tune with their core values? Do they consider if this sect will become even bigger advocates because of this stance and possibly zero out the detractors? Are some of these owners and CEOs so arrogant and indestructible that they think nothing can bring them down? Or are they so passionate about what they believe in that they don’t care if it does?

Whether that gain is a moral one, a branding image one, a revenue one or some combination of the three is what’s in question.

As a consumer in this changing landscape, I ask: Is this a good thing? Should brands identify themselves with social and political issues? Are companies letting consumers know where they stand just part of doing business now? Yes. Knowing what a business values or what they stand for lets me know who I’m really supporting with my dollars. It personalizes and personifies the brand and their company leaders. In the modern world of non-stop exposure, brands need to take a stand. It’s quickly becoming an expectation, a piece of important information that is being weaved into the brand’s story and image.

In a world where everything is driven by the bottom line, choosing brands based on their out in the open principles is a refreshing concept.

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2 comments about "Is It A Good Idea For Brands To Take Political Stands?".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 21, 2014 at 10:06 a.m.
    Consumer orientation is the goal towards human rights. It's not political or social. It's humanity. Then there are some people who make it a political topic.
  2. Kevin Killion from Stone House Systems, Inc. , March 21, 2014 at 10:31 a.m.
    There is a more direct business interest in some cases. I'm thinking of a major, major health insurer that is hopelessly behind in applications and other paperwork as a result of policies they were forced to cancel and their replacements. Angry customers can't understand why they have no documention on their coverage, four months after they applied. There's the dilemma: should this company just keep quiet and appear to be incredibly incompetent, or go public and place the blame where it belongs?