Can brands afford to get political?

2016 was a tumultuous year for politics, and 2017 looks set to bring about further upheaval and uncertainty. With Brexit, Trump and the refugee crisis continuing to dominate both the headlines and public consciousness, it’s impossible to ignore the huge changes playing out on the global stage.

So, what does this mean for the way that brands communicate with their customers? As divisive political issues — and their effects on businesses and consumers — become part of mainstream discourse, is it best for companies to nail their colours to the mast, or to maintain a non-committal silence?

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

It’s easy to see why it might be tempting to keep quiet. American sneakers company New Balance felt the full force of what a poorly thought out political statement can do when they found themselves embroiled with neo-Nazi newspaper the Daily Stormer.

The day after the US election, the trainer company’s head of public affairs told the Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us, and, frankly, with president-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”

The statement sparked widespread dissatisfaction amongst New Balance customers, with many taking to social media to share footage of them burning or binning their trainers in disgust. Shortly afterwards, the Daily Stormer named the sneakers “the official shoes of white people”. New Balance’s sales in New York dropped 25% in the week following the incident.

Although the business released a statement announcing that it “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form,” it is clear to see that there has been lasting damage to the brand.

It might be easy to read this as a warning against engaging in politics, but sometimes businesses are left with no choice but to comment. Sweets company, Skittles was also dragged into the US election debate when Donald Trump Jnr posted a tweet comparing refugees to the candy.

What was Wrigley, which owns Skittles, to do? Remain silent and they risked appearing to agree with the anti-refugee sentiment of the tweet. Respond and they could be pulled into a potentially damaging dialogue.

In the end, they found the perfect middle ground. “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,” the company said, ending the conversation. Wrigley expressed their distaste for Trump’s opinions rather than focusing on his personal attributes and came out of the exchange not just unscathed, but were applauded for their dignified and considered response.

Actions speak louder than words

Written and verbal statements weren’t the only way that brands engaged with politics in 2016. JD Wetherspoon founder, Tim Martin distributed 200,000 pro-Brexit beermats across the company’s 920 pubs. And with the business’ net income up 14.24% last year, the move doesn’t seem to have had an adverse effect on profits.

The tone of the beer mats was perhaps part of the reason there wasn’t much backlash from ‘remainers’ — the messaging lacked the nastiness which came to blight much of the EU referendum debate, and instead concisely and calmly presented its argument. Perhaps too, the business knew its customers. Research from Campaign magazine has shown that the favourite brands of leave voters tend to be “traditional, straightforward, simple, down-to-earth, good value and friendly.” Sounds a lot like my local Wetherspoons to me (although granted, I drink there and I voted remain).

For certain brands, 2016 brought direct pressure from consumers to take action based on the political landscape. Lego, for example, released a statement saying it would no longer advertise with the Daily Mail, following a viral Facebook post from one of its customers urging Lego to get on board with the Stop Funding Hate campaign.

Lego’s announcement on Twitter was liked almost 80, 000 times — a clear stamp of approval from its customers. Whilst it didn’t spell out its views on the newspaper’s reporting, its choice to tag @stopfundinghate in the tweet subtly revealed its aversion to far-right journalism.

So what’s the verdict?

It is possible for brands to weigh in on political issues, but it’s a step that has to be handled carefully. As a business, you should know your target market inside-out and consider its possible reaction before making any statements. Is what you’re about to say likely to appeal to or alienate your customers? If it’s the latter, it is almost certainly best to stay quiet.

If you really can’t keep schtum, avoid the temptation to fire off a quick tweet. Explain your brand’s standpoint fully and don’t leave room for ambiguity — appoint a colleague to be devil’s advocate and ask them to find any parts of your statement that could be misinterpreted. Don’t be afraid to release several sentences or paragraphs if that’s what you need to explain your viewpoint properly.

And finally, no one likes a bully. If you’re responding to something, target ideas you don’t agree with rather than people. No one comes out of a mud-slinging match clean, regardless of the topic of debate.