It goes without saying that a company is based on a set of values and a mission to do whatever it’s set up to do. But what happens when a segment of society exploits your mission for their own political agenda — and worse yet, foments violence against your company for expressing a point of view they don’t agree with?
It would be easy to give facile advice about “living your brand” and “standing up to bullies.” But let’s be real, when a loud extremist minority is bent on hurting you, your people, or your customers, it may be time to reconsider.
Years ago, our non-representative, gerrymandered to the hilt legislature passed HB2 (the infamous Bathroom Bill that said you must only use the bathroom of your sex) under the cover of darkness, making our state a national disgrace, and ultimately costing upwards of a billion dollars in penalties to businesses and tourism. In response, our agency and brewery created a beer called Don’t Be Mean to People. The beer brought over 40 breweries across the state together to support our LGBTQ communities. While the effort received national acclaim, we did it to show that there are progressive voices in our state that believe in dignity for everyone. At the time, we laughed when we got a voicemail from the KKK threatening to burn us down. Back then it felt like, “Haha, that’ll never happen, but let’s make sure we have insurance.” We didn’t even report it, we just deleted the message.
These days, I’d likely report it. The conservative newsertainment complex and our current crop of vitriolic politicians have ginned people up to the point that guns are being drawn, people are being shot, and violence is now on the table in some quarters–all because we don’t agree. It’s not just reactions to Budweiser advertising, look at a preponderance of GOP campaign ads and note how many of them show the candidate with a rifle shooting at metaphorical Washington issues or sending out Christmas cards featuring armed preschoolers. Even conservative stalwart Chick-fil-A has landed in the proverbial, and literal, crosshairs for daring to have a DEI officer.
It’d be so easy to say, screw it, we’re going to double down and be even louder and stronger with our point of view, but when lives are at stake, it’s not so easy. So, what’s a brand to do in this climate?
Start with what we don’t do
Don’t just apologize and slink away. I think there’s a way to say, “Sorry you’re offended” and carry on with your business without giving in. Besides, giving in to extremist pressure will only end up getting everyone mad at you, not just the crazies. But be sure what you’re standing up for jibes with your beliefs. Now is not the time for performative messaging.
If you’re going to stand up for underrepresented communities, take this chance to actually stand by them.
There may be weirdos on both sides, and many of those crazies are armed–increasingly on both sides, but mostly on the right. Brand advice kinda goes out the window when people’s lives are in the balance. For certain, the safety of your employees must come first.
Show up or shut up, be your brand
Maybe this is the bellwether for brands to not just be performative, but to start practicing what they believe. For instance, Target has been about inclusivity for a long time but last year they donated a quarter of a million to the GOP, who is now boycotting them and stands against words like “empathy” and the freedom for everyone to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t have it both ways. There is a difference between marketing to an audience and supporting a community.
In Target’s case, do I blame them for moving their pride stuff to the back and getting rid of some products? It’s hard to argue when it comes to safety. A Target spokesperson previously said that these products were pulled due to “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work.”
Considering all of that, here are a few things to think about that are foundational to the brand conversation.
Know your purpose and live your purpose
Make sure your company is aligned with your purpose at every level. That’s why you have one in the first place, to help you make better decisions and always have a North Star to navigate by.
Don’t confuse purpose with politics
Unless your purpose has a political agenda (which most don’t), why are you wading into political issues? If you just start dropping social and political issues into the marketplace as an ad campaign divorced from your reason to be, you’re going to cause dissonance.
That said, if your brand is dedicated to taking a political stand in the world, don’t just talk about it, be it–and don’t back down from it. Patagonia gets away with it because they’re not kidding around. They are who they are.
Know your customer
Brands create a social contract with their customers to deliver a benefit. If you confuse that benefit, again, you will cause dissonance. What needs are you serving in their lives? How do they relate to you? If you want to change your customer base from your current one, you will have a long row to hoe. You’ll need to do it over time, but start by asking whether your company is right for new segments and your current customer.
The invisible hand of the free market shouldn’t be holding a gun.
Perhaps the real lesson here is just don’t try to have it both ways. It’s interesting to see the difference between Miller and Bud Lite. Miller came under fire for their campaign supporting Women’s History Month that addressed old sexist tropes in the beer category. They didn’t apologize. Instead, they put out a statement backing the work and sales reportedly went up 18%.
Budweiser, on the other hand, seemed to try to have it both ways, appeasing the haters with an anemic statement from the CEO about “We hear you…As we move forward, we will focus on what we do best—brewing great beer and earning our place in moments that matter to you”. They didn’t stand by their decision to feature an influencer. It was hard to watch and sales went down. More damaging, everyone is mad at them now: their current customer and the new customers they were trying to entice. Lose, lose. Brands need to consider this when they attempt things like “a pride post” without any substantiating action.
“It’s the difference between marketing to an audience and supporting a community. Bud Light had many opportunities to offer DEI training to their employees and to publicly support Dylan Mulvaney, but they chose not to because supporting the LGBTQ community isn’t necessarily in line with who they are as a brand, but they wanted to market to that community and get credit for it.” – Emily Watson, Creative Director at Baldwin&
Maybe the time for performative marketing is over. Put up, or shut up.
Cover image source: vit