What Happens When Brands Play Politics

Political protest is en vogue for brands, from rousing women’s rights campaigns  by Procter & Gamble and United Colors of Benetton, to anti-Trump rhetoric under the award-season spotlight.

Last month’s Oscars saw a declarations from Hollywood’s elite and provocative ad campaigns. Hyatt celebrated cultural differences in defiance of Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions, while The New York Times told the truth about  “alternative” facts, human rights and the media.

Celebrities and brands are daring to tread on dangerous, partisan ground. While it might not seem like an astute business move to broadcast your politics, sometimes, it's unavoidable.

While civic corporate involvement isn’t new, some CEOs are louder than others, particularly in Silicon Valley. Dr. Jim Garrison, longtime activist, academic and the founder and president of Ubiquity University, an education and technology company, is a fierce Trump opponent.



Rallying against the president’s environmental policies, he notes: “When politics moves from the background to the foreground, everybody has to pay attention. There’s no neutral ground.”

But rebellion against the White House is not the only factor encouraging brand involvement. When brands have vested interests, it’s also a huge motivator. Allowing immigrants into the country helps the creation of new business. Per a National Foundation for American Policy brief, over half of U.S. billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants. Many of these business are in the  tech sector.

Outside of the travel ban, certain policies, such as the dissolution of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) act as bait for brands like New Balance to get on-board. Forming new alliances, these businesses will be held to account by fans on social media.

In fact, YouGov claims two-thirds of U.S. adults support politically motivated brand boycotts. Is there a downside?

Business advisor and entrepreneur Carol Roth says companies can acts as a voice when it becomes part of the political process to support its needs and employees.

But there are perils for brands entering into political debate.

“Businesses, brands and celebrities have a diverse base of customers or fans, as well as employees, siding with one group can alienate another,” she says.

Some examples of online backlash of brand boycotts and protests include Uber, 84 Lumber and New Balance.

Viral Uber boycotts effectively forced CEO Travis Kalanick’s departure from Trump’s advisory group. It’s a stark contrast from the political diplomacy of Elon Musk, who aims to incite change from the inside. This renders Uber and Kalanick less capable of affecting real change, missing a big opportunity to boost consumer relations.

“Now more than ever, brands and marketers need to be courageous and stand by their principles —and that means taking a stand on issues that impact their businesses and customers,” said Madalene Milano, a partner at communications firm GMMB.

She says consumers want brands they buy and trust to care about their political concerns. “It’s an opportunity for brands to bond with their consumers -- and build their consumer base -- in common pursuit of solutions to big issues,” she said.

This is where the power of the Internet kicks in — using public platforms to spread messages. We’re seeing new political brand consultancies, and even political native ads from  Politico Focus. Consumer-watchdogs turned digital activists like Shannon Coulter’s #GrabYourWallet are keeping brands in check.

Regardless of the motivators, political protest and boycotts resonate with young consumers. So there’ll be more in future — from furious fans, defiant corporations and hopeful opportunists.

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