In the old days of marketing, conventional wisdom quite correctly suggested that politics and marketing don’t mix. The logic behind this belief is that unless your product or service directly sells to the political audience, taking a political stand simply alienates a portion of your audience for no reason.
As with every rule, times and circumstances change. The world today is a different place, and our audiences – infused with enthusiasm about politics (based on the sheer number of conversations about the topic) want to know what brands stand for or against. With social media engagement a primary responsibility of many digital marketers, completely ignoring the hottest, fastest-trending, highest-volume topics borders on negligence.
Playing it Safe
The safest bet, if your organization is very risk-averse, remains to avoid involving your brand, unless your brand is inadvertently drawn into the debate, as Ford Motor Company recently was. Be sure to have a crisis communications plan in place, just in case you are roped into a debate you didn’t ask to participate in.
When to Jump In
However, if a political position assists you in recruiting or is strongly aligned with your brand, it may make sense to publicly declare it. For example, I focus heavily on marketing, analytics, data science, and technology. A political party, candidate, or position which vehemently opposes the use of facts, data, and thoughtful analysis is antithetical to my brand and to why people seek me out. Thus, opposing those views, parties, and candidates who deny the very existence of data, analysis, and insights isn’t especially harmful to my brand. People in my audience who deny the role and impact of objective data analysis are unlikely to ever become a customer.
In this context, by declaring a position for the objective use of data in public policy, I am also not stepping out of my domain of expertise. It is logical for me to take positions on the topic of data, because I have credibility to speak about the topic. It makes significantly less sense for me to take a position on, for example, GMO foods, because I know little to nothing about the major issues and I’m not a geneticist.
Starbucks can credibly talk about fair trade in coffee. It could not credibly talk about sustainable fishing practices or where automobiles should be manufactured. It could talk credibly talk about how its efforts are increasing or decreasing carbon emissions in climate change, but probably not speak to how other companies should deal with ocean acidification or immigration.
How do you know, quantitatively, whether your brand should engage in political debate? The bellwether is simple: if virtually all your best customers and your ideal prospects are talking to you about a political topic or position, you may want to consider a more public declaration of said position, thoughtfully aligned to your brand’s values and mission. If the majority people who provide you with revenue aren’t talking to you about politics in your domain of expertise, take the safe road.
Avoid Messy Human Candidates
I would still counsel avoiding candidates when possible. Unlike issues, candidates are murky, complex human beings, and while they may broadly align with your brand, they may present thorny problems at individual issue levels outside the issues in your domain of expertise. Issues and topics are clear-cut by comparison.
Politics is messy business, but in this era of transparency and real-time communication, we marketers should be prepared to participate thoughtfully or at least be prepared to respond reactively to political issues. To do otherwise is to ignore what our audiences care very deeply about and fail to engage them.
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