Should company values and personal politics ever mix?
After Elon Musk took over Twitter, the irreverent Tesla CEO became increasingly outspoken, injecting his personal political views into the public sphere.
The result may have been bad for business. Although it’s early to know the full effects of Musk’s polarizing online persona, at least half of Twitter’s advertisers have left and some Tesla owners say they are “ditching their cars” and buying elsewhere in response.
Tesla’s potential problems highlight a delicate question increasingly facing companies and corporate leaders: in today’s politically divided climate, should they take stands on political and social issues? In other words, should company values become public? If they do, how do they avoid alienating large portions of their customer base who may disagree?
Some have handled the dilemma better than Musk, who stands out in part because his tweets and political persona ostensibly have nothing to do with the cars he is trying to sell.
Examples of Company Values In Public
Chick-fil-A, for example, is a restaurant industry powerhouse while openly displaying the company’s Christian values. REI has achieved success in the outdoor recreational equipment market by touting its progressive outlook and “putting purpose before profits.”
But even brands that have won praise for navigating tricky issues still face risks. Walmart’s decision in 2019 to take steps to discontinue sales of ammunition “inspired other retailers” but also prompted some “consumer backlash.” And REI recently faced some negative publicity for fighting a unionization drive, which some saw as out of step with its liberal values.
In an over-politicized culture, businesses need to keep in mind that if they take stands on divisive matters, they risk alienating large swaths of their customers. It’s a lingering landmine.
As Deloitte suggests: “Before taking a position on highly charged social issues, companies should consider their own history and values, as well as the audience being targeted. Consumers can sense insincerity.”
Yet if done in a systematic and sincere way, it is possible for brands to wade into the political waters – and come out with their reputations not only intact but possibly even enhanced.
Here are some suggestions that could help:
Listen to Your Customers
Research from social media management firm Sprout Social shows that 70 percent of consumers “believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues,” a number that has increased over time.
Driving the trend are the younger generations: three-quarters of Generation Z and 80% of Millennials backed companies taking a public stand, compared to 68% of Baby Boomers and 58% of Generation X.
The relationship between a brand and its buyers should be built on trust and respect. So if the majority of customers are advocating that businesses get involved, executives should listen – and at least seriously consider the idea.
Understand Your Customers
By definition, your customer base is going to have diverse opinions, especially as society itself continues to grow more diverse.
With the nation’s politics so divided, virtually every business will have Republican and Democratic customers. (The same is true in other countries that have opposing political parties.) So if businesses take a hard line one way or the other, they will invariably upset some people on the other political side.
Brands need to take that reality into account – and make sure they understand and appreciate the diversity of thought in their customer base.
Stick to Your Company Values
As some experts say: “If a company does decide to join the political conversation proactively, it’s imperative that management first consider their brand history, core values, and most important, their audience.”
That’s good advice. Businesses that choose to take political and moral stands, in spite of the risks, should make sure they stay aligned with what their business is about, or what some might call their core values.
Chick-fil-A stands as a quintessential example. The company’s decision to publicly tout its Christian values – even staying closed on Sundays – seems to have won it far more customers than it may have lost because the religious focus is in line with the brand.
If You Take Stand, Be Collaborative
Experts recommend that companies actively engage with and seek feedback from their employees if they are weighing entering the political or social arena. That’s always a good idea, since positive employee experience leads to better customer experience.
Feel Free to Keep Your Company Values Out of the Public Eye
There’s an old public relations adage: no news is good news. While many in today’s hyper-politicized and online society no longer practice it, in some instances it can still have value.
After all, as the case of Musk shows: don’t you want potential customers to be talking about your products, services, and expertise rather than whatever political thought may have come into your head?
In the end, the decision about whether to get involved in political or social issues is inherently fraught. Companies need to navigate it carefully.