Should your company get political on social media? Experts weigh in.

Joan McGuire

Brands will take edgier political stances on social media in 2019, experts predict

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The federal government remains shut down and around 800,000 employees aren’t getting paid as a result of President Donald Trump’s campaign for border wall funding. Early last year, as controversy over the project was building, a national construction contractor approached Portland-based social media and branding agency Anvil Media. They wanted to know how to tweet about their bid to build the wall.

“I said, ‘The only thing I could help you with is to tell you to not do this,’” says Anvil president and founder Kent Lewis. He promptly resigned the account. As more companies see the need to express political views on social media, Lewis says, “we’re seeing those taking a stand doing better, and those taking the wrong stand getting hurt.”

The border wall bid was an example of a misguided stance that would have likely angered many of the company’s customers and employees. But for other large companies, the Trump era has made speaking out almost a necessity.

“We’re seeing those taking a stand doing better, and those taking the wrong stand getting hurt.”
—Kent Lewis, Anvil Media

Look back at the year we just wrapped up: A Nike ad spotlighted Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback whom the president denounced for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. Delta and United ended discounts for National Rifle Association members after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Patagonia donated its entire $10 million Trump administration tax cut to fighting climate change, an issue the president doesn’t believe exists.

The White House’s polarizing social media presence and the economic pressure placed on companies through the trade war, Lewis says, have galvanized brands towards activism. “There are more and more brands jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon because it’s starting to impact their businesses,” he says.  

Some have dubbed the outpouring of corporate support for liberal causes “woke capitalism.” If the balance of political posts from major brands seems to skew left, it could be because that’s the safe bet online.

A study released last year by social media management and analytics company Sprout Social revealed that 80% of liberals think it’s important for brands to take stands on social media, compared with 39% of conservatives. Those who lean left are also more likely to take action, either positive or negative, in response to a company’s post, and to believe the brand’s leadership actually believes what they say.

For nearly all brands in today’s polarized political climate, stances that were once apolitical have been colored red or blue. In November, for example, Leupold & Stevens received an unpleasant surprise as it bestowed its “hometown heroes” award upon a veteran at a Blazers game. On national TV the honoree unzipped his sweatshirt to reveal a T-shirt printed with “end this sponsorship #NoLeupold” to protest the military-industrial complex.

At the other end of the political spectrum, consumers burned Nike shoes because the brand depicted an athlete who took a stand against racism. Partisan polarization makes speaking out reflexive, but also risky.

“Right now everything is so charged that very simple things that have never been upsetting are now considered, for lack of a better word, triggering,” says Kirsten Saladow, director of Matter Communications. “There’s a lot that could go wrong.”

“There’s a lot of privilege in being able to research companies’ stances for a couple hours, and maybe buying something much more expensive.”
—Kirsten Saladow, Matter Communications

Most of the time, however, the risk is worth it. There is a hypothetical philosophy 101 problem involving a train barreling toward five innocent bystanders. You’re standing next to a switch. If you flip the switch the train swerves on to another track and kills one person, saving the first five people. If you do nothing, the five people are goners.

A similar logic works for brands and political issues on social media. Companies used to be able to stand idly by while political controversies steamed past them. Now, increasing political, economic and consumer pressure is forcing them to flip the switch. By taking action, they’re going to lose someone. They might anger a small fraction of customers who don’t share their values. But they give the majority—the nearly three-quarters of people who expect brands to take a stand—a powerful platform for their views. Those people turn into greater fans and advocates.

The Sprout social research notes political social media posts from brands generally yield a net gain in support.

“You’re creating a magnet bonding your best customers for life and repelling your worst customers,” Lewis says. 

In the case of the Kaepernick ad, Nike did its homework. They likely knew they would lose some customers, largely older white people. But they also knew close to 60% of revenue was generated outside of the U.S. in places where the majority of people don’t agree with the country’s response to racial issues. Within the U.S., they knew the ad would appeal to their core consumer demographic—younger urbanites—and attract new interest from Gen Z. The results bore out that thinking as online sales in the wake of the ad outperformed similar figures from last year, and Nike stock jumped.

It might seem like common sense, but political messages from brands come off as most believable when the issue directly affects the brand’s business performance. Consumers say brands are most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers (47%), employees (40%) and business operations (31%). Climate change and Patagonia, check. Black Lives Matter and Pepsi, not so much—if you were in a coma during that uproar, click here.

Another large segment of consumers won’t care about companies’ political posts because they can’t afford to. Some people can spend two hours researching whether their laundry detergent manufacturer has supply chain issues in Indonesia, but others just need an affordable product.

“There’s a lot of privilege,” Saladow says, “in being able to research companies’ stances for a couple hours, and maybe buying something much more expensive.”

It can also come off as overstepping for a brand to be overtly political or inquire into its consumers’ partisan affiliations. Some people prefer to get their political commentary from the New York Times, and their shoes from Nike.      

 “To effectively connect with Gen Z, brands will not only have to authentically convey their values and purpose but actively live it and prove their commitment.”
—Kent Lewis, Anvil Media

Executives are not immune to the changing political climate on their personal social media accounts. Consumers overall think companies are more effective at generating support than CEOs, according to the Sprout survey, but 59% of consumers think the CEO should speak out about social and political issues on social media.

Lewis cautions, however, that the CEO shouldn’t always steal the spotlight unless their personality comes off as exceptionally compelling. If you have someone a bit crazy (Elon Musk), conceited (Travis Kalanick) or boring, best keep them out of political posts. But if your CEO is articulate and engaged, it can’t hurt to have them back up the company’s stance. Lewis says it’s important to let the executive do what they do naturally, instead of manufacturing a persona for them.  

One of Lewis’s six predictions for social media trends in 2019 is amplified political presence from brands. A big reason for that is the rise in purchasing power of Gen Z, a demographic that, just like millennials, expects transparency and activism from the companies they patronize.

Younger generations are far more more woke than their forefathers. They are more likely to search or jobs or support companies based on causes they support. As wealth transfers to their hands, they are expressing their activism through their buying habits.

“To effectively connect with Gen Z,” Lewis writes, “brands will not only have to authentically convey their values and purpose but actively live it and prove their commitment.”

The second reason is continued pressure from the Trump administration over tariffs, immigration and other issues that affect business operations. “If Trump manages to stay out of jail and in the presidency,” Lewis says, “20% to 30% of Oregon brands will take an open stance about an issue that is political.”

Saladow agrees that 2019 will see brands taking bigger political bets, and sometimes getting burned. “I think you’ll see people taking bigger risks, and also clear missteps,” she says. It might be hard to imagine an ad more off key than the Pepsi fiasco, but Saladow says it could well happen. Nevertheless, more brands will see value in taking the leap.  

As the authors of the Sprout report put it, “brands have more to lose in silence than in speaking out.”

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