What brands should do when unwillingly dragged into a political conversation

In just 140 characters, leaders such as Trump have the capability to turn consumers against brands just through the mere association of his personal brand image.

Take for example, New Balance which was recently caught in a social media storm for displaying its support for the new POTUS. This resulted in backlash and saw internet users sharing videos and pictures of themselves burning their New Balance shoes.

Hence it is no surprise that brands such as Airbnb, Google, Starbucks and Lyft were quick to point out their stand against Trump’s immigration ban. Leaders of the four top holding companies in the ad world have also spoken out against the immigration order.

Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP for one said, WPP is concerned about the impact it may have on its people and their families both inside and outside the USA and on innocent people generally.

"As the grandson of Eastern European grandparents, who were admitted to the U.K. in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, I have an instinctive dislike of such measures," he said.

But sometimes, try as brands might to stay out of the conversation, they can't help but get roped into the talk. Skittles was one of the few brands to get pulled into this debate. Luckily ,the brand came out on top for its impressive response when Donald Trump Jr. took to Twitter and equated a bowl of Skittles to affected Syrian refugees in the Syrian refugee crisis. Skittles said: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

While many experts ask for brands to remain apolitical, being dragged into a situation seems very much a possibility as brands get more closely integrated to consumers' every day lives.

Vanessa Ho, managing director, Singapore and chair, client services, Asia Pacific, Weber Shandwick, said conventional wisdom has been that brands should avoid purely political debate, unless under attack, as they don't generally serve customers based on their political beliefs.

She added, however, that people live in unpredictable times and in this engagement era, brands and corporations are often in open dialogue with their audiences. As such, brands today often reflect the zeitgeist and take a stand on higher-level issues that align with their values.

Ho explained that this refers to equal opportunity, diversity, humanitarianism for example— and in some cases, protect their employees. This is done in a responsible, considered way which is not simply drawn on political lines.

Agreeing with her is James Brasher, director and partner at Rice Communications, who said that brands often avoid politics for good reason.

“It's always a minefield, especially in the current political environment where people are more polarised than ever," he said.

At times, brands have no choice but to stand up for their values, and accept that some level of backlash is inevitable as not every customer will agree with your view of the world.

Meanwhile, David Lian, managing director at Zeno Group Malaysia, said that the lines between the brand, the company and the people running it are thinner than ever. Hence it is not possible to isolate the brand’s reputation from company issues such as taxes or the hiring of immigrants.

“Most brands today place high emphasis on ‘values’ as a means of building emotional connections with their audiences. I think this is the crux of the matter. If you tell your audience you stand for something, that your brand, your company and your person has a set of values, then you need to live up to it,” he added.

So what should brands do when faced with a potential political crisis?

According to Rice’s Brasher, like any other issue, it is important to establish the facts quickly and avoid “alternative facts” being spread. It is of course important to know who the most important stakeholders are and communicate with them. It is also crucial to state the brand’s position clearly and the reason for taking that position - and how it is aligned with the values of the organisation.

Be prepared to deal with backlash but also accept that taking sides in a political situation means that fallout is inevitable.

Agreeing with Brasher is Joseph Barratt, managing director of Mutant Communications, who said that when it comes to wading into political controversy, brands should ensure they follow the words of former First Lady, Michelle Obama, "When they go low, we go high".

A brand should make its principled statement but stay out of the noise. It should not engage with messy public debates, stay above mudslinging or nastiness.

Depending on the message and controversy, Barratt explained that the brand could be facing boycotts and the breakdown of some relationships. However, on the flip side, if the response is well executed, the brand is well placed to establishing long term bonds with supporters. He said:

Real emotions and interactions are lacking in this over sanitised, risk adverse world, and I think consumers appreciate brands that are real. However, if it is clearly going to alienate your target audience and damage the brand, then be careful and think twice.

In an example which Barratt gave where the agency ran a similar campaign for a client, he explained that over one month the client received hundreds of abusive emails. This however, paled in comparison to the thousands of emails of support and the tripling of their revenue.

“The audience that was annoyed were never going to be customers anyway, and in the process it helped create a strong sense of brand loyalty amongst potential audience,” Barratt added.

Zeno’s Lian meanwhile highlighted the importance of staying on-brand, being consistent to its values, and championing the audience it has exerted much effort into nurturing an emotional connection with.

“You don’t have to be loud and sometimes, a non-response is a response. But start from a point of truth and honesty and clarity of what your brand and company is about and stick to it,” Lian added.