The Apolitical Brand is Dead!

[NOTE: A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Commpro.biz in July 2018 and was authored by JP Laqueur, Chief Connector atBrandFoundations.us and Steve Cody, founder and CEO of Peppercomm.com.]

Let us just come right out and say it: “The Apolitical Brand is Dead.” 

It used to be that a brand could avoid taking stands on polarizing issues, walking a tightrope so to speak, when it came to politics. As Michael Jordan supposedly once said – in response to criticism of his lack of political activism – “Republicans buy sneakers too.” 

But that era is officially past. Today, brands are being forced to speak up. They are being forced by a president with a trigger finger on Twitter. They are being forced by a millennial workforce who puts purpose ahead of profit and expects their CEO to lead them from a moral as well as financial standpoint. They are being forced by a socially activist customer base that can rally millions of buyers to boycott or issue negative reviews in a matter of days. And they are being forced by a 24-hour news cycle that simply never ends. 

So, your organization needs to be prepared to take a stand. The question becomes how and when? And the truth is, most brands are dangerously unprepared for this new polarized landscape. 

The Most Painful Wounds Are Self-Inflicted

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Over the past few years, we have witnessed a number of brands attempt to take a stand on polarizing political or sociological issues with a range of results. In general, the failures have outnumbered the successes. One of our companies (Peppercomm, in tandem with the Institute for Public Relations) has published a number of studies on this topic, finding that the root causes of these failures generally fall into one of these two categories: 

  • Too Little, Too Late: Some brands become frozen like deer in the headlights, afraid to anger one segment of the market or another. When finally pushed to take a stand, it appears either too little or too late and they end up angering everyone, including employees.

  • Off the Cuff: In other instances, brands either respond too quickly or without thinking through their response and a well-intentioned stand ends up backfiring with embarrassing consequences.

Our research revealed a number of best practices that brands can and should follow if they want to avoid these mistakes. 

Stand Up Without Getting Knocked Down

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First and foremost, brands must be prepared. There is no way of knowing what presidential tweet, school shooting, political earthquake or other societal crisis is coming next… but the reality is that they are coming. Smart brands will prepare by carefully considering the all possibilities and thinking through – in advance – what stands they might take and why. Smart CCOs will engage in continuous scenario planning and running mock exercises to test their responsiveness. They will also ground their responses in a “higher purpose” and engage their employees in defining this “north star,” which not only helps guide responses but also helps ensure collective buy-in across the organization. Most importantly, brands will need to accept that they can’t please everyone and be prepared to withstand the wrath of those who disagree.

Unsure whether your brand purpose is strong enough to withstand a societal crisis? Download our self-diagnostic "How Strong is your Purpose?" and then contact us to discuss how your organization can prepare for the tough stands ahead.