As social media continues to become a more ubiquitous force in today’s world, users are more frequently utilizing these platforms to divulge their political opinions, warranted or not. With all the thoughts, accusations and even breaking news popping up on social mediums like Twitter and Facebook, it can be hard for large corporations to ignore this unprecedented opportunity to interact with constituents and consumers on trending news items, especially if it is a topic the company or its employees are particularly passionate about.
However, offering up a particular political stance in any public forum can be incredibly risky for a corporation or client. The hazards can include nationwide boycotts, dropped contracts, media backlash and more, but the benefits could range from an increased customer base to stronger brand loyalty.
Sometimes, corporations can find their brand in the middle of a political hotbed without any intentions of getting there. Recently, the shoe company Mizuno received excessive attention, and even increased sales, in correlation to the shoes’ appearance on Sen. Wendy Davis’ feet during her filibuster in the Texas Senate. Although the brand issued a statement commending the senator and the shoes’ ability to withstand any challenge, be it “a 5K, a marathon or 10+ hour filibuster,” they played it safe and clearly stated that they did “not maintain a corporate position related to the topic in discussion.”
In most cases, taking the neutral stance, as Mizuno did, would be the recommended PR route for clients and companies of all sizes; however, pulling off a successful and public political stance is possible.
Several companies have been able to enter the arena of discussing politically-charged issues in social media and have emerged relatively unscathed, but it takes precise planning and excellent timing and cannot be successfully executed without a strong hold on the pulse of ever-swaying public opinion.
One company that has bravely featured divisive social issues in ad campaigns with minimal repercussions is Svedka, a brand of Swedish vodka. This company has voiced its opinion on often polarizing issues such as gay marriage and the war in Iraq. Most alcohol companies steer clear of political landmines and produce content with heavy overtones of a fun and carefree lifestyle; however, Svedka has been able to push the envelope by understanding the demographic of its core clientele. Its customers, whom are mostly 20- to 30-year-old culturally diverse male and females with moderate-to-high income, tend to be liberal in thinking and care a great deal about social issues.
The brand touts controversial topics it knows the majority of its target audience agrees with. Keeping tabs on the pulse of consumers is imperative. A recent ABC News poll states that 81 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support marriage equality. Knowing statistics like these, Svedka is able to align its brand with social issues that increase brand loyalty and make individuals feel a more connected relationship with the product. This strategy has worked overwhelmingly in Svedka’s favor so far, and it is currently the second largest imported vodka brand in the United States.
Companies have also publicly suffered backlash from speaking out about political policies. Papa John’s earned national attention when its CEO John Schnatter claimed the “Obamacare” act would cost the franchise somewhere between 11 and 14 cents per pizza, and that he would consequently be cutting work hours so employees would not qualify for benefits.
YouGov BrandIndex is a survey that measures brand popularity and perception by the public. On Election Day, Papa John’s held a relatively high score of 32, but just eight days after Schnatter’s comments were published, the chain’s score plummeted 10 points.
The key is to know your audience. Remaining transparent and steadfast is also paramount in such situations. Companies whose politics seem to flip-flop or who give ambiguous apologies often recover their positive public image slower than those who stick with their initial stance, despite backlash.
Before deciding whether to dive-in, brands should fully understand the risk of venturing into the realm of politics in social channels, and they must decide if they are willing to endure potential profit loss for taking a stand. If the brand can connect with its audience through politics or cultural symbolism, the impact can be overwhelmingly positive and long-lasting, but if the company misreads its public, or issues politically-charged statements before fully evaluating the potential effect, its corporate image could be permanently tarnished.
This blog was contributed by Kristen Crosby. @KristenCrosby11