“Don’t talk politics”

Should this conventional wisdom extend to brands?

I paced up the long residential lane that intersects the road which I live on, holding a wedge of bright red leaflets that were plastered with the words ‘Remain’ and posting the 101st leaflet those letterboxes received in the past few weeks. Yep, you’ve guessed it, that was last year before the EU referendum.

I can tell you that I helped the Remain campaign last year — and the fact that this was on behalf of my local Labour party — even though conventional wisdom dictates that you don’t talk politics when you first meet someone. Okay, okay, there are times which you might want to avoid political debate but, in a democratic society in which there are a plethora of diverse views, it often won’t hurt you to state it outright. As a Labour supporter, I might have offended some highly partisan individual but for the most part, no real harm or negative implications will arise from me telling you this.

(Yes, I do have a necklace that says #JezWeCan )

But what if a well-known brand told you that the Labour party was the right party to back, and also supported the contents of the leaflet I distributed that dreary day in June 2016?

What do they have to lose that we don’t?

As mentioned, I don’t have anything profound to lose by informing you on what my political, social and economic views are. But brands do have a lot — sales, consumers, stock prices — and so, if they are to adopt a view on such issues, it has to be well calculated. In this notably erratic age of politics and society , brands can really suffer from adopting a point of view, either explicit or implicit, on such issues.

The #deleteUber movement following Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s appointment — and Kalanick’s acceptance of the position — to President Donald Trump’s economic advisory council shows how much brands do have to lose. The implications were noticeable with other 200,000 people deleting their Uber accounts, forcing the CEO to step down from the council. Uber’s link with Trump also affected employees as, stated by Jim Conigliaro Jr., founder of the Independent Drivers Guild, “there would be no Uber without immigrants”. The company then had to set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers, offering help with translation services and round-the-clock telephone access to legal aid. But the damage had been done. Uber had alienated its employees and a significant number of those that used the service.

However, there can also be problems staying quiet and brands can lose by doing just that: saying nothing. Silence can sometimes imply some form of agreement or complicity. In fact, a recent survey has found that 68% of the respondents said they believe that businesses bear as much responsibility for driving social change. That is quite a responsibility but some brands have taken this on. Like Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook said in his memo about Trump’s travel ban, “I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be” — and in this current climate, this rings evermore true.

On whether they have much to lose by having a point of view on social, economic or political issues, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the issue and whether you are on the right side of your employees and consumers.

What do we have to lose as both citizens and consumers?

Arguably nothing, especially if we agree with what the brands are saying. Had a brand that I used, say Nike, agreed with me on my views on the referendum last year, I would have been pretty happy and subsequently remind myself to be loyal to the brand. But there are some signs of potential dangers if brands have determined views on such issues.

Why? Because they can begin to have a significant impact on policy and legislative making.

Now, you might say this a good thing. For example, (sorry, another Trump one!) when Google, Nike, Microsoft, Starbucks, Twitter and many more big names specifically hit out against Trump’s travel ban, it had a positive impact, forcing the administration to at least halt the imposition of this ban. Similarly, when the NBA Commissioner said that the NBA All Star game would locate elsewhere if the North Carolina LGBT Law remained unchanged, it rightly added further pressure on the state’s mayor and legislature.

It demonstrates the immense power a brand or corporation can have on political or economic issues, particularly in contrast with me and my leafleting — but do we always want to see that power being exercised? There is a very fine line; brands will need to take extra care. It can be mitigated by the collective — the #deleteuber movement is a good case in point — but brands should still be careful as to when to leverage their influence as a brand, particularly as the organisations behind them can lack accountability and transparency.

The difference between a point of view and values

When I campaigned a year ago, pushing Remain leaflets through the array of doors on that road situated in Kingston, I was campaigning and actively endorsing a political point of view. I personally believed that the UK should remain a part of the EU and supported Labour’s vision on this.

But underlying this point of view are the values that I constantly hold, values that may evolve but mostly stay steadfast: equality, freedom, the importance of community as well as cooperation and many more. They can be defined narrowly or more broadly, and are open to interpretation. Brands can have values like these — Ben & Jerry’s have always stood for equality so it somewhat made sense when they backed Bernie Sanders’ campaign, along with the creation of new ice-cream flavour, ‘Bernie’s Yearning’ (which you, amazingly, had to tap the 1% of chocolate to get the 99% of mint ice cream!)

But there is a difference between a point of view and values — for the most part, brands are able to adopt values with no real problems but they begin to enter choppy waters when they express a point of view, especially when it does not align with the values they have been associated and built up with their brand’s evolution. With Ben & Jerry’s, their brand’s values were intrinsic to their political point of view — that Bernie Sanders was best placed to win the Democratic leadership because he would, in their view, fight against inequality.

Values are not the same thing as a point of view on an issue; brands should always make sure that their values align if they are to express a point of view.

Not everyone has the same views

I sometimes think it would great if everyone had the same point of view as I did — and it is highly likely that others believe the same with their views on social, economic and political issues. I mean, the fact that Leave won shows that there are so many who don’t hold the same view as I do, and underlying their views there is a plethora of different reasons and justifications.

Beyond that, different cultures, countries, groups create more scope for difference. For a global brand in particular, that can be incredibly difficult to navigate through.

IKEA, through a franchisee situated in Israel, found out this difficulty of this the hard way. It had created a catalogue that consisted of only male models so to appeal to Israel’s ultra-orthodox community, it learnt the tension between thinking globally and locally. Although an example more about brand values, this is a good case study for brands who might take a point of view that is well received in one country but clashes with others.

For global brands, unless the disparity between local and global can be adequately contained and does not severely impact the brand, they should generally not be expressing a point of view on issues concerning politics, economics and society — particularly the former two — unless they have severely considered the repercussions.

The rule should go: don’t talk politics as a brand unless you really have to, are determined that you should do and only if it adheres to your core values.