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Can Big Brand Advocacy Bridge Our National Divide?

Elements of Brand Advocacy

These are divided times, and marketers aren’t immune to the political and cultural fragmentation around us. Take a look at the controversy around #takeaknee. What started as a symbolic gesture for racial justice by a single player, Colin Kaepernick, has swelled into a headline-grabbing showdown between the NFL and the president.

The roots of dissension are complicated, but one factor stands out―declining public esteem for traditional institutions. Confidence in government is near an all-time low. Trust in faith-based institutions has deteriorated. And despite an uptick for national news organizations and soaring cable ratings, mainstream media has a trust problem.

In the Trump era, there’s one sector that has a unique opportunity to offer a form of civic and social leadership that seems scarce. That sector is the business community. Sure, people are cynical about business, particularly industries like pharma, banking, and Silicon Valley. But at times when things seem out of control, we’re seeing corporations step into the breach. Brand advocacy has never happened like it’s happening now.

Earlier this year business leaders began to speak out as never before on politicized issues like climate change, immigration, and LGBTQ rights. We had previously seen the power of enlightened corporate brand advocacy in fights over various state “bathroom bills” where companies from Salesforce to Southwest pushed for a revision of the law’s blueprint. Post-election, business mounted a similarly vigorous response to the initial announcement of President Trump’s travel ban. They challenged the president with public statements supporting sensible immigration and pledges to assist those affected by the ban. These are issues important to many businesses, so an enlightened corporate response might be expected.

But this summer brought a tipping point of sorts. The White House’s shambolic reaction to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville drew a fierce response that went well beyond the buzz of cable pundits. The president’s baffling and tepid remarks spurred action by executives like Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, Intel chief Brian Krzanich and even Walmart head Douglas McMillon.  After Trump appeared to equate white nationalists with some of the protesters opposing their march, Frazier and Krzanich (previously a Trump booster) resigned from the president’s business council, along with many others, and McMillon publicly rebuked the president.

What’s interesting is that the businesses standing up and speaking out aren’t just the usual suspects … the indie brands with loyal followings of customers who share their values. It’s not just about Tom’s of Maine or Patagonia―or even a socially driven mega-brand like Starbucks. The new brand advocacy leaders are just as likely to be large corporations that aren’t particularly known for advocacy beyond their own interests. This is Big Business with a capital “B.” And it just may be that traditional businesses, as the nation’s largest employers and profit-driven and pragmatic corporate citizens, are best suited to exert the missing “moderating influence” on the president and his allies.

Research is mixed on how and why a brand should “take a stand,” but the pressure is growing―along with the opportunity. Tanaya Macheel’s remarkable Digiday story, “The House Jamie Built: How J.P.  Morgan Chase Became the Industry’s Conscience” illustrates the role that a global U.S. corporation can play in modeling Trump-era brand advocacy. What category is more loathed than banking? Yet, under the leadership of Dimon and his team, Chase has become “the industry’s conscience”―a little hyperbolic, maybe, but impressive. Explains Brandwatch’s Kellyn Terry, “The presidential election changed the landscape of social media permanently and majorly. Instead of talking about who’s wearing what designer and meme sharing, people began to need to know who’s on what side of the political divide.”

Corporate Brand Advocacy in The Era of Trump

So, how does any corporation bridge the “trust gap” and offer leadership in such a volatile environment? Even the most established brand is taking a chance by wading into a politicized discussion. How do these businesses take a stand while mitigating the downside risk?

They Understand the Power of Brand Advocacy

A strong position on a big or controversial issue works as a blunt instrument, and its success can hinge on relevance to a company’s values and those of its core customers. In that way, a social position may not be as useful for attracting new customers as it is for deepening relationships with an existing base of users. When it works, it can create powerful connections where a merely transactional relationship existed previously.

They Stand for Something, Not Just Against

No matter how progressive the politics of a brand’s customers, squaring off against the president, or, conversely, taking on his critics, often provokes antagonism. Positive messaging can help. Rather than criticize the administration’s immigration policy, for example, smart opponents promoted the contributions of American immigrants, offered help to those in need, or spoke on behalf of diversity as a core American value. It helps to tie the position to the brand’s principles, as Amazon did with the travel ban, or as PepsiCo has on issues of gender equality and advancement of women.

They Put a Face on the Issue

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke out against the travel ban, and he had a unique perspective: his own family’s experience immigrating to the United States after the Iranian Revolution in 1978. Khosrowshahi was able to describe the feeling he had that “we were welcome now, and we would be welcome tomorrow” in advocating for a more open immigration policy. As a gay man, Apple’s Tim Cook was particularly effective in speaking about marriage equality and “religious freedom” legislation that many see as legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people.

They Involve Stakeholders

Employees have enormous influence, both for good and for ill, and smart corporations leverage the power of their own status as employers and the strength of their workforce. And there’s a practical reason to engage internally when hammering out a brand advocacy program, of course. Many large employers have high-priority recruiting needs that can be supported with a powerful position on emotionally charged topics and issues.

They Use Their Financial Clout, with a Light Touch

We’ve seen this in the decisions by brands to drop advertising in outlets due to “fake news” or unacceptable editorial content―and not just with YouTube or Breitbart. Consider J.P. Morgan’s move to cancel its ads on NBC’s interview show with Megyn Kelly featuring conspiracist Alex Jones. Chase CMO Kristin Lemkau was vocal about the company’s reason for pulling its ads.  Just as consumers have learned to exercise their buying clout, so have large advertisers, and the two are inextricably related.

They Cultivate Allies

Similarly, aligning with like-minded brands or companies can offer safety in numbers. The success of business in galvanizing public opposition to sweeping government moves like the bathroom bills and the White House travel ban was in part due to the coordinated response by so many companies and advocacy organizations.

They Manage Pushback

Every worthy action sparks a reaction, so it’s crucial to be prepared for social media pushback or even social action like protests, boycotts, and lawsuits by those who oppose a company’s position on a hot-button issue. The key to handling organized opposition is to overstaff the response. No one welcomes a distraction, but most mega-brands are experienced and have the internal and external resources to manage a vigorous public debate.

They’re Consistent

Occasionally a brand will adopt a stand for well-meaning reasons without a longer-term game plan. When they encounter opposition, complaints from board members, or media criticism, the temptation is to fold like deck chairs. This is almost always a mistake because they end up swapping one group if critics for another. Opponents smell weakness, employees are confused or disheartened, and media delight at a story with fresh legs. Nothing is worse than a flip-flop.

Big business won’t save us from ourselves. But as global citizens and employers with a huge stake in just about every high-impact issue from climate change to immigration, the world’s largest companies can and should use their leverage―and PR power―to support positive dialogue, pragmatic leadership, and stability in a very chaotic time.

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About Dorothy Crenshaw

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and Creative Director of Crenshaw Communications, a boutique PR firm focused on marketing and reputation building strategies for consumer and technology brands under the banner "Creative Public Relations for a Digital World." She founded her firm after a 15-year career in marketing PR that included senior posts at Edelman and Grey Advertising's GCI Group.

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