Everything Is Political: Brand Communications in the New Era



When a U.S. President can impact stock valuation and sway public dialogue in just 140 characters, what’s a brand to do?

This is the new reality we face – one in which a rapid-fire tweet can send stocks on a roller coaster ride and politicize everyday conversations. Though Trump’s tweets at various times sent Boeing stock into a nosedive and Nordstrom’s soaring, these events were ultimately blips in each brand’s stock history. Within a few days, prices leveled out – leaving marketers and executives scratching their heads.

In this climate, anything a brand says or does can be perceived as political.

Christine Arena, founder and CEO of Generous Agency

Through a two-part series, we will explore this issue, accompanied by research insights from members of the Purpose Collaborative — North America’s largest network of purpose, corporate responsibility, and sustainability experts. To kick-start the conversation, we posed the following question to Collaborative members:

In a Trump administration, how will companies approach their social purpose commitments to continue to reach their social and business objectives? What are the opportunities and risks, and what are Purpose Collaborative members saying to clients and prospects?

The next year will be pivotal for brands, organizations, and the marketing minds shaping their communications strategies. Best practices will be shaped on the fly, and communications professionals have to be agile, responsive and extremely forward-thinking. Conversations and relationships will shape this new era of brand leadership.

Carol Cone

Carol Cone

Carol Cone will discuss what the good life means to consumers at SB’17 Detroit

In this climate, anything a brand says or does can be perceived as political, says Christine Arena, founder and CEO of Generous Agency. When politically charged social issues bubble up, companies may have minutes to decide whether to be reactive, neutral or proactive. Traditional approaches to public relations, crisis management, and cause marketing will need to be re-evaluated. The volatility of conversations around social issues, executive actions, and consumer sentiment puts brands in treacherous territory — and they need to think proactively by determining their point of view now.

Communications teams must be equipped with the right perspective and messaging to react to consumer actions in the moment. It’s no longer a matter of if an issue will come up — it’s a matter of when – and with a president whose actions in office frequently stray from his campaign rhetoric, the adage “actions speak louder than words” has rarely been more applicable.

Annie Longsworth, founder and CEO of The Siren Agency, advises communicators to approach each topic, situation or challenge as unique. With your brand point-of-view as a lens, evaluate the issue at hand, the constituents involved or affected, and the political/social/economic climate in the moment. Companies that have been vocal about issues in the past (e.g., Target opening its restrooms to all genders) must be consistent, while understanding that the tone and nuances of their messaging may need to evolve.

Listen before you speak

Monitoring conversations and policies is vital to architecting an effective communications strategy. A recent study conducted by RF Binder advises brands to keep a close eye on Trump’s tweets for brand mentions, as recent tweets have driven a considerable spike in volume of both brand conversation and negative sentiment (and the resulting amplification of those tweets by Trump’s followers and opponents can result in free media exposure equivalent to billions of dollars over the course of a year – so brands need to react wisely).

In the same vein, brands should review Trump’s policies as they pertain to the industries and sectors in which the company operates, so that they are prepared to address legislation as it takes effect or is overturned. In these situations, brands can leverage their point-of-view to “have a seat at the table,” says Scott Beaudoin, RF Binder’s Chief Strategy Officer. In this position, brands can leverage the insights gleaned from monitoring conversations and listening to their constituents to become allies to those driving social change.

Be more human than ever

Consumer trust is shifting from the “established authority” to the “mass population.” Brands with a people-first approach will be better positioned to activate that mass population around their mission. Communicating their messages through human-to-human stories makes the brand more vulnerable and authentic, as opposed to splashy campaigns that put a veneer between brand and consumer, potentially eroding trust and skirting pressing issues.

Consumer trust is shifting from the “established authority” to the “mass population.

Stories are vehicles for education – and Nicole Rennie, founder of Forward StoryStudio, believes that when appropriate, brands can embrace relevant events and conversations to educate their constituents in real-time. As “fake news” and alternative facts dominate the media, there is an emerging role for brands to be a loudspeaker for issues that matter.

This approach, Arena reiterates, gives brands the opportunity to better articulate what they stand for – and in a time when protests and uprisings are becoming commonplace, the mass media are in upheaval, and consumers are demanding that their voices be heard, this has never been more important.

In Part Two, we delve into brand activism and its impact on a company’s authenticity, long-term value, and past initiatives – plus more front-line content from Carol Cone and the Purpose Collaborative.

This article first appeared on the Sustainable Brands website
The Purpose Collaborative is a collective of 37 agencies, including over 400 purpose experts whose mission is to partner with organizations to identify, accelerate and amplify their purpose, CSR and sustainability commitments. The Purpose Collaborative is led by Carol Cone, regarded as one of the founders of the purpose movement in the early 1980s.