Brands began entering the political arena in 2016, when North Carolina signed its “bathroom bill” (which denied transgender people the right to use the bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity) into law. More than 100 major brands, including Apple, Airbnb, Bank of America, Starbucks and United Airlines, successfully lobbied for its repeal. The NBA moved the 2017 All-Stars game out of Charlotte, and PayPal and Deutsche Bank rescinded plans to expand in the state.
In 2019, brands were again caught in the crossfire when Georgia passed the so-called “fetal heartbeat bill” (which bans abortions at about six weeks into pregnancy). Studios including Disney and Netflix threatened to halt local TV and film production, but only a few independent producers actually followed through.
Brands again faced a political quagmire in the wake of the Jan. 6Capitol riot, after it came to light that many companies had donated to politicians who challenged President Biden’s win. Toyota came under fire for donating to these politicians, announced it would halt its giving, and then quietly walked back that decision, angering all sides in the process.
Soon after, as Georgia and Texas passed new restrictions on voting, brands such as Coca-Cola, Delta and American Airlines spoke out, and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game out of Atlanta. However, the bills still became law, and the brands caught flack for doing too much or not enough: jumping in too quickly, or hanging back for too long.
This March, as Florida debated the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Disney originally pledged public neutrality to avoid being turned into a “political football.” Following an employee backlash, Disney reversed its stand, and came out against the bill. This also managed to anger all sides, leading to Walt Disney World’s tax benefits being revoked.
Now, with Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance, consumers and employees again ask brands to step up and speak out. Apple, Salesforce, Yelp, Amazon, and many leading banks are either reviewing their employee health benefits or have already announced enhanced reproductive benefits for those whose access might become limited.
With midterms on the horizon, the 2024 Presidential race about to start, and Trump apparently gearing up for another run, the political crucible will only intensify. How can brands meet the moment without getting burned?
*Listen carefully. Brands should know how employees and consumers feel before -- not after -- they take a stand. Insight communities, focus groups and tracking studies are all excellent ways to take stakeholders’ temperature, and hear their biggest fears and concerns.
*Address root causes. Wherever possible, try to tackle the larger issue behind the controversy. Rather than taking a partisan stand on a voting bill, pledge to register 10,000 new voters. Rather than coming out for or against specific abortion legislation, provide health resources to women as part of a CSR campaign. And rather than advocating for the Green New Deal, tout your brand’s “net zero” carbon emissions strategy.
*Live your values. The most powerful way a brand can express its values is through how it treats its people. Set clear corporate policies that are inclusive and equitable, kind and caring. Address special state-specific needs. And promote these policies not only among current and potential employees, but also consumers, influencers and regulators.Consumers increasingly look to brands to lead the way on society’s most intractable issues; those answering the call will not only survive the times, but also help shape them.