Does Your Brand Need to Lean In or Back Out of Brand Politics? A Quick Guide To Choosing Your Stance

by Emily E. Steck

Does Your Brand Need to Lean In or Back Out of Brand Politics? A Quick Guide To Choosing Your Stance

Stories are many things—happy, sad, enlightening, uplifting, critical, entertaining, empowering, educational and so on. However, the one word most brands would rather avoid using to describe their content is political. Calling a story political is a surefire way to piss off your Facebook friends or have people immediately tune out of the conversation. This is brand politics 101.

But whether you like it or not, some stories have to be political (or have a political angle). It doesn’t matter if the story is fictional or nonfictional, for children or adults, highbrow or lowbrow—storytelling is rooted in conflict, and that means you will occasionally need to take a political stance.

Like it or not, brands are now storytellers and as such, they can’t escape the brand politics conversation. While brands often hesitate to take a political stance, storytelling and content require them to make a choice: either keep the nature of conflict in stories at arm’s-length or take it head on and embrace the politics.

Determine If Your Brand Needs to Take a Political Stance

Consider this: is your brand in a space related to or adjacent to politics?

Don’t be so quick to answer yes or no—this is a question that you and your team will need to carefully consider. Your industry may not be related to politics, but your brand values you may and vice versa.

For example, THINX may be a B2C underwear brand for people with periods—which is not necessarily a very political industry—but THINX’s brand values are in a space related to politics. THINX wants to break menstruation taboos and promote a feminist agenda. Their content includes a women’s health vertical (which Quietly has helped to produce) that represents their commitment to their brand values.

On the flip side, the domain registrar and Quietly client dotSUCKS—which sells .SUCKS domains—is in a space directly related to politics, given the tongue-and-cheek domain names it sells. They encourage companies to reclaim branded sites (e.g. Walmart.SUCKS) or give a voice to important causes (e.g. cancer.SUCKS) with creative marketing platforms. Their provocative content is as controversial as it as candid and encourages brands and marketers to take a stand.

Of course, it’s just as possible that your brand is not political whatsoever if neither your industry nor your brand values are inherently adjacent to politics. This is most likely to be true if you are in the B2B space, which has less opportunity or need to associate with politics. For instance, we work with several cloud-based software companies whose industries would never require them to develop a political identity.

If your brand is in a space related to or adjacent to politics, you are free to pass GO (to the next step) and collect $200 Monopoly dollars (not redeemable for Quietly services).

Determine Whether Your Brands Wants to Lean In or Back Out of Brand Politics

Now that you have determined that your brand is in a political space, it’s time to decide if you want to lean in or back out of the political angle. There are pros and cons of each that can both help and hinder your brand.

Pros of leaning in:

  • Strengthened brand loyalty. Brands who take a position on something will surely create good feelings of favor in some of their customers. Approximately 90% of Americans say they’re more likely to trust and stay loyal to companies that actively try to make a difference.

Cons of leaning in:

  • Backlash and criticism. Just as taking a stand for or against something is sure to gain some brand loyalists, it’s just as likely your brand will alienate some customers or patrons of your business. A big brand like Starbucks may be able to do so and still thrive, but can your brand afford the financial risks associated with speaking out?

Pros of backing out:

  • Neutrality. Brands who stay neutral on politics can carry favor with every potential customer. As the famed basketball player Michael Jordan may have once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Cons of backing out:

  • Backlash and criticism. If your brand is perceived to be in a political space (either via industry or values), there can also be backlash for remaining silent. The outrage culture that lives and dies on the internet may come after your brand or you lose past customers who feel you should have spoken up.

There are many great examples of brand politics playing out in real time that illustrate both the positives and negatives.

  • Starbucks may get heat for their politicized coffee cups, but they take their social justice mission seriously: their content series the Upstanders showcases their politics—and just so happens to feature really strong storytelling. Plus they just pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, which is sure to further ignite the fire among supporters and detractors.
  • Uber and Lyft, rivals in the car-sharing startup world, recently leaned in and backed out of the recent immigration order in the U.S. Uber’s actions to stay neutral for this administration prompted a #DeleteUber backlash; Lyft, meanwhile, pledged $1 million to the ACLU. After facing considerable backlash, Uber later pledged a $3 million legal fund for immigrant drivers and asked Trump to cancel the travel ban.

If you aren’t sure whether you need to lean in or back out of brand politics, consider calling on the expertise of an agency partner who has worked with brands on both sides of the fence. At Quietly we continually come up with stories that are provocative but on brand, so get in touch if you’re interested in seeing where we’d take things.

Image Credit: jaymantri.com via Unsplash

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