Brands traditionally shy away from politics, but a new US president has brought so many turbulent opportunities, many major corporations are learning to swim with the sharks after all.
Some brands don’t have a choice; they get politicized unintentionally. LL Bean didn’t reckon on taking a hit over a family-member contribution to a pro-Trump PAC, but they were wrong. Others try to capitalize on the spotlight currently shining on politics and instead watch their customers exit in droves, such as the folks pushing Ivanka Trump's fashion line. They tried to use a serious "60 Minutes" interview to boost sales, only to find the products booted from Nordstrom, Sears and Kmart when sales plummeted instead. Still others are entering the fray deliberately. Google, Amazon and Expedia are mounting legal challenges to anti-immigration legislation. Stalwart Merriam-Webster has brought sass to political discourse, providing definitions for the semantically-challenged; these are strange times for brands.
If you’re going to take a stance, the trick is to appeal to more customers than you alienate, so you better know your customers. Lands’ End got that so spectacularly wrong with their Gloria Steinem catalog interview last year, the CEO was ousted. And this week, Pepsi is hustling to recover from a spectacular face-plant over a new ad set in a fictional protest march. Smart brands avoid aligning exactly along the lines of fracture. Intel appears to be playing to both sides of the gallery, countering legal pushback against Trump’s ban with a splashy announcement about building a US-based factory. Last year, Budweiser’s star-spangled rebranded “America” beer looked like it belonged in the fist of someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. And yet Bud’s Super Bowl ad sympathetically depicted its founder’s less-than-cheery welcome as a US immigrant.
So, whose side are you on? It may not matter, so long as you tread carefully. How will your brand make the most of the current climate of contentiousness?