Brands Are Facing Post-Election Boycotts. Here’s Why They Can’t Back Down

Advertisers typically prefer to stay out of politics. Why risk ostracizing half of your potential customers with some divisive statement that alienates the left or the right? But in the sinkhole of a month that’s followed the election, brands are starting to get sucked in.

Lately, brands have been getting into more political beefs than Joe Biden after he polishes off a bottle of Jack at John Boehner’s dinner party. Yuengling mortified hipsters across Brooklyn when it came out in support of Trump, and the sense of betrayal among young liberals only grew after November 8. New Balance saw a backlash when it came out in favor of Trump and his trade policies. And 50 retailers, including Sears and Nordstrom, are being boycotted by The Donald J. Trump resistance, a Facebook group with 39,000 members, for continuing to sell Trump merchandise.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters have threatened to boycott … well, damn near every brand. (Here’s an extensive and strangely impressive list.)

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi came under intense attacks after acknowledging that her employees were in mourning from the election results, and generally repudiating hateful language against women. Target CEO Brian Cornell has faced waves of protesters and boycotters over his decision to let people identify their own gender when going to the bathroom. One Million Moms is calling for a massive Christmas season boycott; they’re also boycotting Zales for highlighting a lesbian marriage in this innocuous holiday spot.

Just last week, Kellogg’s faced a boycott for discontinuing its advertising on Breitbart. Trump supporters even swarmed Starbucks to protest the company in a puzzling way: buying coffee and giving “Trump” as the name that baristas would have to write on their cups. Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, has been receiving death threats for employing 300 refugees in need.

In such a polarized country, advertising is increasingly becoming a political act. Advocating for equality or pulling advertising from a website that spouts hateful beliefs is now considered an affront to the president-elect and his base—as is the act of expressing concern over what will happen under President Trump, or continuing to advertise and sell his line of products.

So what should advertisers do?

Some would say that they should still avoid any campaigns that could be perceived as political. Why risk it when you don’t have to, right? But that would be a mistake. In an age when social connections and content are so important, brands can’t succeed without a mission, without standing for something.

Some folks may be boycotting Target, but my Facebook feed is also filled with people vowing to now do all of their shopping at the retailer. Target’s share prices have been soaring. Even if publicizing your beliefs may ostracize some potential customers, it also builds deep loyalty for those who share your values—particularly values like celebrating equality and inclusion, which many people support, regardless of political affiliation. The same goes for expressing concern and support for the diverse people who work for you. Loyalty isn’t just a marketing metric; it’s also critical for measuring the internal health of your company.

David Oglivy once said, “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.” Companies that know what they stand for are the ones who will win.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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