Airbnb’s recent Super Bowl commercial, created in three days and including no more branding than an end-card icon, flaunted a company comfortable with its mission. The ad, focused on diversity and inclusivity, and released alongside a more specific email to Airbnb customers, introduced a brandwide program created to provide housing to refugees.
Airbnb isn’t the first brand to take a side during the new Trump presidency. As Marketing Land’s Greg Sterling recently pointed out, it’s incredibly difficult at present for brands to avoid taking a political stance.
Some less careful organizations such as Budweiser, Uber and L.L. Bean have inadvertently entered the political fray. Budweiser felt political heat after its Super Bowl ad, which featured a mini-biopic of the company’s German-immigrant founder, hit a nerve for some supporters of Trump’s recent refugee and immigration ban. However, Budweiser denied claims that its message was meant to be political. #DeleteUber was certainly not a brand-endorsed campaign, and the L.L. Bean backlash came as a result of a Trump comment, not a company message.
On the other hand, Airbnb’s ad and Starbucks’ commitment to hiring refugees feel like more than messaging; both brands worked their political missions into companywide practices.
Both seem aware of the messages they’re endorsing and are willing to accept the consequences. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote a letter to employees stating that the brand would not “stand silent,” and Airbnb co-founders wrote a similar letter on their website.
Neutrality is no longer chic. Instead, it can feel like having one foot on the dock and one on a drifting canoe — you take a side, or you risk a fall.
So what’s a modern brand to do? For some businesses, showing customers the values their patronage stands for is a point of pride. But others may want to serve customers without getting personal.
And while it’s not necessary for every brand to make a public political message, avoiding the topic altogether is a mistake. Whether you’re a local contractor with a few employees or a multi-national name brand, your mission, your practices and your messaging can have an effect on how customers view and relate to your brand.
Here are a few questions every brand should be prepared to answer in our mission-oriented culture:
1. What does our brand stand for, and how do we message this mission?
Consumers care about brands with a passion. While it may not be necessary to take a stance on issues irrelevant to your product, consider what causes your brand cares about and rallies around.
For example, I recently spoke with an executive from McDonald’s at a networking event. This man had clearly “drunk the McFlurry,” but his insights into his somewhat controversial brand were interesting.
McDonald’s sometimes gets into heat with advocates who are focused on raising the minimum wage. I learned that, in response, the brand has not upped its starting pay, but it instead focuses on education initiatives for employees, including English classes for non-native speakers and funding high school diplomas and college credits for employees.
McDonald’s focuses on certain areas but doesn’t try to please everyone. It still has some branding issues with its food, in my opinion, but I appreciate the company’s decision to focus on what it can do to help employees seek higher pay via education.
Equally important for brands is to ensure that your passions come across in your messaging. This can be a great point at which to engage customers; interview them or seek out user-generated content to see your brand from a customer’s perspective.
And be careful to consider various interpretations of brand messaging. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the Budweiser snafu changes ad development — in an increasingly instant world, taking months between concept and release can turn a benign story into an allegory.
2. Does our brand’s culture reflect our mission?
In a recent Guardian post, Alex Holder shared a cynical view on brands’ nascent adoptions of political causes. He wrote:
It’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they are helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation.
While any for-profit brand does have to consider their bottom line, I disagree with Holder’s view that corporate giving and advocacy initiatives are purely selfish. That being said, a big indicator of hypocrisy truly comes out in brand experience. If you’re going to take a stance, make sure that your “walk” reflects your “talk.”
How are customers treated? What’s the employee culture? For brands with a customer service or customer support team, does the brand mission translate to customer interactions?
3. How much are employees expected to participate?
We’re in a new world of political openness, and the workplace rules are still largely unwritten. But how do you bring advocacy programs into the workplace without ostracizing employees?
Some employees may not wish to engage in politics at work, or they may disagree with the brand’s new stance. This doesn’t mean that they can’t do their job, but it may cause uncomfortable moments.
If possible, I recommend providing employees with an “out.” For example, make politically related company activities optional.
If participation is mandatory — say, for a social media manager charged with sharing company views or a hiring manager charged with targeting a demographic — work brand practices into conversations. Give employees space to voice reservations and concerns.
At the end of the day, some employees may still need to decide between embracing a company policy they don’t agree with or finding a new place to work. But leaving the door open for conversation is better than allowing those who speak on behalf of your brand to foster resentment in silence.
And what about executives’ personal politics? After all, the L.L. Bean drama occurred thanks to a donation by Linda Bean, a member of the family who owns the outerwear brand. If a higher-up is making significant donations to a cause, it’s a good idea to prepare for backlash from any who disagree.
We’re living in a politicized world. Whether you write RESIST on your office roof or avoid a public political stance, now’s the time to look into the messages — conscious and unconscious — your brand sends.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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