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How Brands Take Political Reputation Risks Successfully

By Lena Harris on Tue, 30 Jan 2018

In the past year, politics has been everywhere, and brands and companies are stepping into the fray to make their voices heard. Once upon a time, this might’ve seemed like a thing to avoid—but according to a recent study from the Harris Poll, companies taking a firm political stance gain just as much praise as disdain from consumers along polarized party lines. This means standing up for your values on divisive topics isn’t necessarily a death sentence for a corporate reputation — for some companies, it’s been a boon.

Consumers Align Values with a Perceived Corporate Reputation

According to the Harris Poll, customers align with brands whose reputations match their values. Think about recent times a major company has been forced to make a political stance, whether by choice or unintentional scandal: for example, the Chick-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy.

When reports came out that the company’s charitable foundation supported organizations deemed hostile to LGBT causes, the news spurred boycotts from activists against the chain. This garnered response from conservatives who organized counter-demonstrations to show their support for the company and its freedom to spend its money the way it wanted.

Typically, a scandal can be disastrous for a company’s reputation—but when controversy centers around a hot-button political issue, the response can be unpredictable. In Chick-fil-A’s case, sales soared 12%. Even today, according to the Harris Poll, Republicans continue to favor the brand for its noticeably conservative values.

Target experienced similar political controversy when they came under fire for segregating and labeling its toy aisles by gender. The retailer acquiesced to pressure from social media following the outcry. Even more recently, Target held to its inclusive bathroom policy to allow transgender customers to use whichever bathroom matched their identity.

This won praise by liberals but prompted boycotts from conservatives—though Target CEO Brian Cornell said the policy had “no material or measurable impact on our business.” Target’s willingness for inclusivity, according to the Harris Poll, wins it a favorable reputation among Democrats over Republicans.

When it comes to charitable works and donation drives, it’s obvious that brands have a lot to gain by publicly aligning their ideals and values with those of their customers. But in a highly divisive political climate, seemingly any action can be taken politically—and consumers are listening.

Brands Get Brave in Value Messaging at the Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl featured a handful of ads carrying overtly political messages, most notably from Airbnb, Budweiser, 84 Lumber and Avocados From Mexico. (It’s worth noting that Budweiser denies political content in their ad, which nabbed the highest engagement on social media following its airing. Regardless, the #BoycottBudweiser hashtag briefly trended.)

#BoycottBudweiser aside, there doesn’t seem to be any seriously negative response to the ads’ political content. Still, brands willing to make a statement walk a fine line. “We are living in very unique times right now, and the purpose of marketing is to reflect the real world,” Steven Osinski, a former advertising agency owner told Forbes.

Mark Penn, president of the Stagwell Group, which owns the Harris Poll, goes a step further on the relationship between brand messaging and real-world current events: “Consumers are keenly interested in how companies engage with the world, and that includes corporate ideals. As the red versus blue duel of politics impacts corporate reputation, we expect to see more alignment along party beliefs.”

How Social Media Crises Affect Consumer Understanding

It’s one thing to intentionally make a statement or support a cause, and another to find your reputation at stake due to unintentional controversy. The Harris Poll notes that Americans often assess companies due to reputational crisesespecially for companies that aren’t household names. A recent example is the EpiPen price hike, in which the product’s cost raised 400%—a situation that was catastrophic towards pharmaceutical company Mylan’s reputation.

With today’s fast-moving world, it’s incredibly important that you protect brand reputation. And when so much activity is politicized on social media, you ought to assess brand values and ensure your company properly exemplifies them. By remaining aware of your values and those of your audience, you can avoid (or weather) a social media storm—and maybe raise visibility for issues that are important to you, your team or your customers.

The Harris Poll cites the biggest reputation risks to avoid are:

  • Intentional wrongdoing or illegal actions
  • Lying about a product or service
  • Misusing financial information for financial gain.

Other reputation risks include unfair working conditions and workplace discrimination. Basically, you need to deliver on your values without compromising or doing anything shifty and illegal.

Protect Brand Reputation & Assert Your Values

If you want to assess your corporate values, it’s a good idea to begin by listening to your consumer base or target audience. What does your product or service offer them? Are you adequately providing this? Is your business, or audience, affected in some way by current events?

Use a social monitoring tool to gather data around your target audience and their needs, then spend some time gauging how the culture and business of your brand responds to them. Once that’s done, consider making a manifesto; the Holstee manifesto is a shining example of brand value messaging. Once you’ve stated your values, you better deliver!

Because consumers gain opinions and understanding of brands when controversy arises, it’s essential that you proactively protect yourself from a social media crisis. The best way to do this is to devise a social media crisis plan, so everyone on your team can: a) anticipate crises and b) respond swiftly to problem areas before they spiral out of control. If you need help formulating an action plan, we’ve got a guide to everything you need to know.

Automated moderation is a great boon for social listening and protecting oneself from reputational crises. With Smart Moderation, you can banish and harmful language from your profiles almost instantly, cultivating a friendly, welcoming community. Without having to sift through baseless, abusive comments, your team can navigate the conversation on social faster and easier—which means stamping out a crisis when every minute counts.

Check out how fast, always-on moderation helps brands every day, and take the first steps to protecting your business in this shaky political atmosphere.