On 12 January, a week before the inauguration, LL Bean found itself smack bang in the middle of one of now-President Trump’s notorious tweets:
The brand quickly distanced itself from the tweet – and from board member and Trump donor Linda Bean, who donated money to help elect Trump.
“LL Bean does not endorse political candidates, take positions on political matters, or make political contributions. Simply put, we stay out of politics,” said Shawn Gorman, LL Bean’s executive chairman, in a Facebook post.
What a quaint notion that seems like today. Since our new POTUS took office nearly three weeks ago, hundreds of companies from tech to retail giants have been forced to deal with a torrent of emotional responses from their customers and employees, unleashed by Trump’s executive orders and tweets. Staying out of politics doesn’t seem to be possible anymore – and business leaders need to get smart about addressing it.
We’ve seen 200,000 people #deleteUber in the hours following Trump’s executive order on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. People rushed to take sides to #boycottStarbucks or #supportStarbucks in response to its pledge to employ 10,000 refugees in 75 countries. Tesla fans canceled their electric car orders because Elon Musk sits on Trump’s business advisory council. Harley Davidson canceled a presidential visit to its Milwaukee plant to avoid protests.
And that was all before last Sunday’s Super Bowl, when viewers looked at the splashy ads through a political lens and reacted in ways that we hadn’t seen before.
To those of us who’ve been working in corporate sustainability, the lineup of brands spending Super Bowl-sized dollars to show support for American values of diversity, inclusion and acceptance – Anheuser-Busch, Airbnb, Coca-Cola and Audi among them – felt like a watershed moment. But for all the support these ads drew, the backlash was equally fierce.
While the Airbnb Super Bowl spot was a conscious political statement, Anheuser-Busch claimed its celebration of the company’s immigrant roots in the ad called “Born the Hard Way” wasn’t politically inclined.
Other brands have been entangled with Trump’s politics in a more personal way. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus dropped the fashion line bearing Ivanka Trump’s name. Nordstrom, which face boycotts from both sides, said its decision to stop carrying the merchandise was “not a political decision” but rather “based on performance”. President Trump took aim at the decision in a tweet yesterday complaining that his daughter has been “treated so unfairly by Nordstrom”.
It used to be business gospel that you kept politics out of business. But in this hyper-polarized political climate, is it time to change that mantra? Should a brand stay out of politics? And whatever your intention, can you stay out?
With so many consumers and employees demanding to know what their companies stand for, brands need to figure out how to respond. Fast.
Get off the sidelines
When anxiety is in the air, employees and consumers urgently want to know whether their companies are willing to take a stand for what they believe in. Don’t assume staying silent will insulate a business against controversy. In a leadership vacuum, people draw their own conclusions – as they did in the lag between Uber suspending the surge pricing during airport protests of the Muslim travel ban and the company’s response the following day explaining its decision. The new reality: saying nothing is riskier than saying something. Start from that assumption and go from there.
Values ≠ politics
A company’s values should be timeless and be able to steady the ship in precisely these kinds of choppy waters. Revisit, reassert and recommit to them now. Crucially, that may not mean a business must take sides. The best Super Bowl ads celebrated values that historically have been universal and uncontroversial. For example, Coca Cola’s ad included a multilingual version of “America The Beautiful” to show its inclusive, multicultural vision of the USA looked very similar to the “Welcome to America” reel I’ve watched countless times waiting in line at customs and immigration at JFK.
Leading the action
For years, companies have seen a disconnect between the values their customers said they held and their purchasing decisions. People who said they wanted businesses to sell more environmentally friendly products were often unwilling to pay more to get them. Suddenly we are seeing many examples of that alignment. Consumers are flocking to or fleeing from Starbucks, ditching Levis-Strauss (which made its stores gun-free) and donating at unprecedented levels to the American Civil Liberties Union (it received donations totaling six times its yearly average in the weekend after the travel ban). People are hungry for ways to get involved and will thank the brands they support for giving their intentions an outlet.
While immigration and women’s rights received the spotlight in the early days of the administration, expect many more social and environmental issues such as climate change and LGBTQ rights to join the national debate. How will a company reassure its employees and customers that it will remain committed to their values and to their wellbeing? The time to plan for this is now.
Publicly speaking out in this explosive political climate won’t come easy. It will feel counter-intuitive. Businesses may lose some consumers while galvanizing others to become lifelong supporters. But they must step up when their long term credibility is at stake.