There’s an unwritten rule in public relations that brands should avoid controversy. The larger the name, the more cautious it should be. When a story breaks that fuels consumer outrage or public debate, savvy marketers should be bystanders, not grandstanders.
We’re living in polarized times. People of like viewpoints and lifestyles tend to operate in their own tribes, separated by geography, social circles, and even the media they consume. To add to the divisiveness, the election of Donald Trump has given way to a new activism on the left, precipitating backlash among his supporters and vice versa. These political and cultural schisms have placed pressure on brands to “take sides” when dissension erupts.
Recently JP Morgan Chase pulled its advertising from NBC’s new “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” after a storm of outrage over a scheduled interview with Alex Jones, the fringe-y conspiracist and radio host. The network’s week long promotion of the interview backfired, since it gave activists plenty of time to protest before the interview aired. It even spurred Jones to release his unedited version of it before the show aired, stepping on NBC’s own story.
Even Shakespeare had his time in the barrel this month. After New York’s Shakespeare in the Park unveiled its production of Julius Caesar featuring a Trump-like Caesar (who is, of course, assassinated in the end), activist groups pounced and some advertisers lent their ears to the protest. Citing its lack of warning about the Trump similarities, Bank of America pulled its sponsorship of The Public Theater after 11 years. It explained that the presentation “was intended to provoke and offend”―a rather interesting comment on a piece of art. Delta followed suit, explaining in a (more thoughtfully worded) tweet that the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”
Those and other examples of brands reacting to customer pressure or moving quickly to head off protest may be overblown, and true damage is hard to quantify. But most research indicates that taking a stand amidst controversy is risky. According to a study by CivicScience, 67 percent of Americans don’t believe brands and companies should publicly comment on politics. Further, a recent YouGov study suggests that that, of those consumers who dropped a brand due to bad PR, as many as two-thirds never returned to it. But there are singular exceptions within the research, most notably that younger people―Millennials and especially post-Millennial consumers―are far more likely to say that brands should take a political stand than, say, Baby Boomers.
And there’s no denying that consumers are regularly urged to vote with their purse. Protest is the new brunch. Look at the controversy around programmatic ads that ended up on Breitbart. The Independent reports that Breitbart lost ad deals with 935 companies due to customer pressure, including Kellogg’s, BMW, Visa, and Nordstrom.
So When Should Brands Take a Stand?
That’s an impossible question to answer, clearly, because it depends on the brand. For those products that have a strong activist identity, the answer is relatively clear. For a Kenneth Cole or a Patagonia, both brands with a history of activism, the new normal is probably a marketing opportunity. But for “ordinary” mass market products, embracing a political or cultural position is more risky. It may make them relevant, but only if they avoid land mines. Here are some guidelines to navigating the brand reputation waters when it comes to controversial positions.
1. Know your customer.
No position or campaign will please everyone, but a brand should know if a position will run counter to the values of its “base.” When Trump signed the executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim countries, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision for Airbnb to take a stand against the order. Its position was fully consistent with the values of a global customer base of sophisticated travelers. Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard has slammed Trump over his climate change stance, but brand-watchers would probably be more surprised by silence from Chouinard in the wake of the recent decision to leave the Paris Accord, given the company’s history of activism on the issue.
2. Consider your stakeholders.
JP Morgan Chase’s decision to pull its advertising from the Alex Jones interview strikes me as a decision that may have moved its own employees and business partners more than everyday customers. If so, that’s a smart consideration. Its CMO Kristin Lemkau tweeted, “As an advertiser, I’m repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes. Why?” Most likely no one moved their business account to JP Morgan or made a decision to invest with the company over the position, but the tweet probably inspired pride and solidarity among the company’s 250,000 employees. That’s a worthwhile undertaking and a low-risk stance by Lemkau.
3. Explain the decision thoughtfully and with compassion.
When former Fox TV host Bill O’Reilly’s alleged history of sexual harassment became public, the show suffered the loss of a string of advertisers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Allstate, GlaxoSmithKline, Constant Contact, and Eli Lilly, among others. Angie’s List, however, announced it would not change its ad buy. The Indianapolis-based home services site explained its decision in a carefully worded statement, “We place ads across a wide spectrum of venues … without taking a position on the viewpoints of the venues themselves. Just as we trust members to make their own hiring decisions, we trust them to make their own media consumption decisions.”
To me, the statement was a bit off-strategy because it was O’Reilly’s behavior that was at issue, not the content of his broadcast. But the brand’s explanation made it a relatively defensible one until the decision was made irrelevant by O’Reilly’s departure from Fox.
4. Stick to your guns.
In some cases, consistency is more important than the position itself. Nordstrom was under pressure from the #GrabYourWallet movement to drop Ivanka Trump’s fashion line for months. When it quietly phased out the line (probably because it wasn’t selling well), the situation was already politicized and it faced a backlash. President Trump himself tweeted harsh criticism of the decision. But Nordstrom wisely stayed the course, releasing a diplomatically worded statement and hunkering down until the storm passed. By contrast, NBC stepped in it during the Alex Jones controversy when it tried to stake out a middle ground by editing the Jones interview to make it harsher. The move only angered Jones, and it did little to defuse criticism from sponsors and viewers.
5. Plan for a reaction.
Every action spurs a reaction, so advance planning is smart. It’s usually wise to inform allies and advocates of the position being taken in advance provided confidentiality can be maintained (A premature disclosure could open the floodgates to protesters.). A smart marketer will explain the decision to stakeholders and advocates, furnish talking points where appropriate, and work to control the message by staffing up on the customer response and social side of the business. The imperative here is that any and all consumer comments―pro and con―are heard and responded to with professionalism.
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