Why Your Brand Shouldn’t Get Political, And What Happens When It Does

October 2, 2019
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    When I was in 7th grade we were given an assignment that would teach us how to write a structured, correctly formatted letter. The idea was to write it to a business. My teacher recommended that we write about one of their products. She also recommended we ask questions to learn about their customer service. Essentially, just write a business and ask them to send a letter in return.   Over the years she had collected various addresses of companies. Most we had heard of. Several students were grabbing addresses willy-nilly just to get through the assignment. I wanted to put a bit of thought into mine. I saw the address for Montgomery Ward. I had remembered looking through their catalog recently as my mom asked me to pick out pants for school. Apparently, you could’t buy ‘cords’ locally. I remember thinking “how do they pick the kids to be models for the pictures.” I figured that would be a great basis for a letter and in my 12-year-old mind would be my gateway into the modeling business. There is NO way they wouldn’t invite me to the studio to show off the terrycloth button-ups.   Upon grabbing the address, one of the girls who didn’t talk to me very often (I just described all the girls in my class) said I should protest Montgomery Ward because of their unfair treatment of animals. I gave her my shocked face. I’m sure I nailed it. She then told me her mom wouldn’t let her shop there, or anywhere that PETA tells her not to and that I should do the same. My brain exploded. What a great idea… write PETA and learn who to protest… tell this girl that I’m on her side and a warrior for her cause… we become boyfriend and girlfriend… we die together of old age.   I was on it.   My teacher didn’t have the address for PETA, but we managed to scour the library and find it. I sat at my desk and wrote the letter. My desk neighbor Dale was eagerly writing his letter. It was to Planter’s Peanuts. He reminded us of the time he brought a can of nuts to school and the bottom third was rotten. His letter would be as stern and direct as any 7th grader could write. Our letters were sent, and we resumed our lives.   The following weeks we all received correspondence. Each letter was addressed to the school, so each was read and discussed as they arrived. Most of the responses were form letters. Some were hand written. Dale received a large box of nuts he opted not to share with the class. I received a list of stores PETA expressed their desire for you NOT to shop at. It was fairly long.   Though my response was not snackable, it started a heavy conversation among the class. We found out that many of the places our parents shop at weren’t animal friendly. We all took a vow not to shop there any longer.   And we stuck to that vow… until the next time we went shopping with our parents.   Later we discussed that though in our hearts we knew they were bad, the convenience of shopping there was too overwhelming to maintain our moral dignity. Plus, the Montgomery Ward catalog kept coming and I kept putting holes in my school clothes. Spoiler alert, the girl and I said about 5 words to each other the remainder of the year. I should have asked for peanuts.   This was a bit of a long and self-indulging story to bring up the point of this; the idea that your brand should get involved in anything other than your brand. It’s a bad idea. But, unlike what you’re going to be told, it’s not going to kill you. Here’s why.   Deep-Fried Homophobia   Over the last few decades, especially as social media grows, more and more people are verbally stepping into politics. Also, those who have been involved for years, from the sideline, are being exposed. Each time it’s putting a stain on half the country, and really doing nothing for the indifferent who’ll awkwardly stand by your side.   Over the years there have been several corporate giants who have taken the wrong steps with their consumers only to discover a VERY loud public uproar.   In 2012 Chick-fil-A donated millions of dollars to political organizations seen by LGBTQ activists as hostile to LGBTQ rights. There’s no shock that the company is extremely religious. Beyond the fact that they’re not open on Sundays, many of the company’s values are influenced by the religious beliefs of its late founder, S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist.   Upon discovering this, the internet came in to attack. College’s rejected building new restaurants on campus. Canada protested their expansion. They even angered Jim Henson’s Muppets. I never ate at it before, but I clearly never was going to eat at it now. This was the view that many of my like-minded friends had. It was pretty clear in my bleeding-heart brain. This company was going to fail.   But it didn’t. In fact, it only got stronger. Chick-fil-A’s sales soared 12 percent, to $4.6 billion, in 2012. At the same it greatly strengthened its expansion. Thousands protested it, but even more offered their support. You’d almost think it was the smartest, grossest grass-roots marketing plan ever. Except for one thing. Chick-fil-A was forced to release a statement in July 2012 stating, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” Afterwards they stopped funding all anti- LGBTQ organizations, but one. But it’s a start.   So, by no means did a protest hurt their bottom dollar, and of course it’s not related to it actually making them more money. It’s that they were forced by the public to rethink how they divert their funding. They no longer can slip under the radar and furthermore, many people, including myself, will always think about this story anytime I hear, see, or am forced to watch someone eat Chick-fil-A.   But what happens when it’s a brand I care about?   The In’s and Out’s of Running A Burger Joint   Recently it was discovered that In-N-Out Burger had been donating to the GOP for the last several years. My Facebook wall was populated with strong words of protest. They’d have to be strong. My friends and I all grew up eating Double Doubles and to claim we’d never go back, one would truly have to scorn us.   Apparently, we all felt In-N-Out did.   In their defense, they donated to both parties over the years. But research showed it wasn’t in even amounts. I moved away from California a few years ago and hadn’t had a Double Double in several months. I was a bit saddened to discover it would be my last.   The controversy maintained. Media outlets discussed. Social media gave us opinions on it. And slowly it went away. Nearly a year later it’s learned that In-N-Out sales didn’t show the smallest of dips and I’ve eaten there twice on trips since.   But I remember. There’s a small part of my hamburger-clogged heart that will always remember how they took a side. An opposing side. It’s going to eat away at me for a while. It’s going to make it a little easier for me to perhaps find my new favorite hamburger joint. And it’s definitely going to stop me from posting, bragging, on FB with a picture of my meal each time I go in.   Brand Improvement for your Home Improvement   Home Depot co-founder billionaire Bernie Marcus recently donated a large sum to Trump’s bid for re-election in 2020. I don’t want Home Depot to set elections for me. I want them to have colored duct-tape and weird drill bits. I’ve spent pretty pennies in that store and to think some of them were going to a person I wouldn’t trust with my TV remote disturbed me. It disturbed many people.   Home Depot did their best to distance themselves from the controversy but when the news media starts each related segment with “Home Depot billionaire co-founder Bernie Marcus” you’re truly in an uphill battle.   I read the article and immediately said “Well, from now on I shop at Lowes” and went upon my day. I read more and more. I got a little more angered each time. My vow to avoid the chain grew stronger. Even the Sith Lords were starting to feel it. Currently I’m not a home owner so my do-it-yourself trips are fairly limited. But recently I needed an item for work. I got in my car and mindlessly drove to Home Depot. I walked in before I figured it out.   I was visiting an enemy!!!!   But, before I stormed out in protest, I purchased the two items I needed while I was there.   Clearly, I wasn’t going to stop going to Home Depot. And like me, many others won’t. It’s too early to see if there is any backlash, I’m going to assume there is not. In fact, it offers clues as to why Chick-fil-A did so well. We forgot. And we also don’t want to be inconvenienced.   But at the same time, people who supported Trump, and then supported Home Depot, made efforts TO go. It’s each to show love, then distaste.   In 2016, Target announced it would have unisex bathrooms. Thousands protested. I personally thought it was a great message from Target because my memory for such things was so strong, I had remembered years back when it was discovered Target was giving large donations to homophobic groups. So for them to turn around like they did was a great thing to see. I seldom shop at Target, but upon learning of their bold decision, when I needed a new hot-water pot I went out of my way to show my support.   At a time when people wanted to hurt their sales, people like me were supporting them. Target is still around today, as strong as ever. The protest did nothing.  I got a nice hot-water pot.   Do I have Mirrors in My Office?   So, it’s very easy to say that by writing this article, I’ve clearly taken my brand on a one-side political ride. It has clearly stated my beliefs. I’ve expressed my distaste for things and if by chance someone reading this feels the exact opposite, I’ve very easily lost them as a future client.   I am the biggest hypocrite in this article.   The title of this article is Why Your Brand Shouldn’t Get Political, And What Happens When It Does. And maybe we’ve discovered what truly happens when it does.   Nothing.   What if Chick-fil-A never spoke out publicly of their religious beliefs. But in turn tore down one of my favorite buildings in favor of their newest franchise.   For that, I’d hate them.   What if IN-N-OUT burger served me a hamburger with a toenail in it.   For that, I’d never eat there again.   What if Home Depot rebranded and dropped the ‘T’.   For that, I’d just think they needed a new marketing agency.   Every day brands we love, and hate make bad decisions. If you’re one who walks the edge you just need to be prepared for what happens when the backlash happens. And though the public’s memory is long, you’re probably going to recover. Even if you piss off the Muppets.   I have one last thought on this. If there is a consumer whose counter opinion was so strong that they were willing to disrupt their lives to attempt to put a dent in yours, did you really want that customer in the first place? I’m sure many places do fine without me shopping there for personal reasons. I know that seldom a business opens its doors with a business plan to alienate 50% of its consumer base (unless you’re Hobby Lobby). No one is ever prepared for that to happen. Hopefully it never happens to me, or you.

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