The Politics of Business

Man holding an open newspaper and reading the inside

Traditional wisdom says that politics and religion should never be discussed around the dinner table, let alone publicly supported by a business, but businesses are increasingly taking a stand on issues they care about. In a climate where businesses are judged by their values (or lack of) and politics is highly polarizing, this is a hard balance to find. If done well, publicly supporting a cause can boost your company’s image and brand, but if done poorly, it can cause problems.

Especially in an election year, things feel extremely divisive and sometimes it’s nice to just focus on business and ignore the world of politics. But in an age where younger generations (read Millennials and GenZ) are primarily interested in supporting companies based on deeper causes, it might be time to rethink that strategy.

Before you take a stand, consider who your target audience is and what you want your company reputation to be. Truth is, getting political might cost business, and it’s important to weigh the pros and cons carefully before you dive in. Depending on your audience, taking a stand is not only positive, but expected. Not taking a stand on an issue can cost you the allegiance of buyers who will view your company as lacking in strong values.

Patagonia has built a brand centered on climate change and protecting the natural environment. In 2017, they sued President Donald Trump over a decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. This was a bold move, but as a company based around outdoor living, it aligned with their message of raising awareness for issues that impact the natural environment. Rather than ostracizing their customer base, their sales actually increased over the weeks following the announcement to sue.

Not every company can (or should!) consider a lawsuit against a sitting president, but it made a statement that aligned with Patagonia’s mission. It is worth taking time to consider what you’re getting involved in, and why. In today’s climate, issues that are labeled as political may be more about equality, social justice, or climate change. If you are getting political for the deeper cause it supports, you can provide support in ways that are less political. Giving employees flexible hours (or time off) on election day is a way to support political equity without taking one side or another.

Another angle to consider is the legality of taking a stand. Depending on your tax status, you may be limited on how political you get. 501(c)3 nonprofits are restricted from using their funding to support a political candidate or take sides in a political issue, so make sure you know the legalities if you are considering taking a side.

Of course, you generally have the option to stay out of political issues, but in some instances choosing to take a position of neutrality may not be the right solution. Depending on your brand’s reputation and customer base, you may lose more support by remaining neutral than by taking a stance. In truth, businesses cannot always avoid politics. If this is the case, and you decide to take a stand, consider carefully what you say and how it may be received. You only get the chance to make that first impression once, so make sure you’re taking time to craft your message before you make it public.

In 2017, Pepsi partnered with Kendall Jenner to create an ad showing her peacefully ending a protest… with a can of soda. Although they didn’t make an official statement with the ad, it came off as tone deaf and they removed the ad soon after it was released. Why did this concept fail? They tried to use political activism to boost their marketing, without making any statement or speaking directly to their audience.

The lesson to be learned? If taking a stand is something you care deeply about, is part of your mission statement, or fits within the ethos of your brand, it can have a hugely positive impact. You should never arbitrarily use it as a marketing ploy. If you don’t have intentions of putting money where your mouth is, it’s better to stay silent than try to make a dollar off of a current hot topic. Mixing business and politics is not something to do lightly, but if a cause is important enough to risk losing customers over, it may be the right choice for you.

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