Business Ethics / Marketing / Public Relations

Should Businesses Meddle With Politics?

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Starbucks has gained both positive and negative attention for announcing it would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide.

We all know the old adage, “Don’t talk politics or religion in public.” Why? Comments made in these conversations usually result in heated arguments, hurt feelings, or in this case, a change in your business’ image – either for better or worse.

In 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO and devout evangelical Christian, Dan Cathy, made headlines when proclaiming that his company supported only “traditional,” non-gay families and was “very much” against gay marriage. Cathy’s homophobic remarks set off a wave of protests and backlash from the public, ranging from nationwide boycotts of the restaurant to lost partnerships with companies like the Jim Henson Company. Cathy caught a lot of flak for his comments, but it should be noted, however, that some applauded Cathy for his views and beliefs, turning up to Chick-fil-A restaurants in droves to uphold the company. Conservative Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee even went so far as to establish a ‘Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day’ in response to the backlash against the company from the LGBTQ community. Oddly enough, despite the mass amount of negative PR in the months following Cathy’s comments, Chick-fil-A’s annual sales for the year of 2012 grew 12% to $4.6 billion.

So is this to say that companies should all make radical homophobic claims in hopes of boosting their sales? Definitely not. To start, the LGBTQ community has made massive progress over the past five years, and anti-gay comments are met with much more criticism rather than acceptance nowadays. In addition, as previously mentioned, customers who shared Cathy’s beliefs became more loyal to the brand and frequently visited restaurants. Even people who had never even eaten at Chick-fil-A prior to Cathy’s comments turned up to show their support. When considering these aspects among others, we can see how Chick-fil-A escaped this PR-nightmare with fairly minimal damage compared to other huge companies who might find themselves in such a situation.

Fast forward to 2017: Donald Trump has managed to clinch the title of America’s 45th President. A large majority of our nation is displeased and are making sure their frustrations are heard. In addition to protesting and petitioning against Trump himself, Americans have begun boycotting companies who conduct business or have any relation with the Trump Administration through an initiative titled #GrabYourWallet. Shannon Coulter, co-founder of the #GrabYourWallet movement, started the boycott on October 11th, 2016 with its intent being for consumers to contact businesses who “…do direct, monthly business with the Trump family…” and inform these companies that they will no longer shop there as long as they are affiliated with Donald Trump. The list of brands on the #GrabYourWallet boycott ranges from retailers who carry Trump products like Amazon, Bloomingdale’s, and DSW, to firms like Uber, LL Bean, and Hobby Lobby whose CEO’S individually raised funds for, supported, or endorsed Trump. The movement has gained major traction over the past couple months, and has found success in getting brands like Shoes.com, Bellacor, Jenny Craig, Wayfair, Zulily, RueLaLa and Kawasaki to cut their relations with all things “Trump”. Although some might consider the #GrabYourWallet movement rash, it speaks to the public’s disdain with its nation’s commander-in-chief.

However, this isn’t to say that all political talk ends with backlash from consumers. While protestors boycott a brand for its political views, consumers with similar ideologies show it more support than ever. Such is the case with the recent #BoycottStarbucks trend – a movement initiated primarily by Trump supporters in response to Starbucks’ announcement that the company planned on hiring 10,000 refuges to work in its stores over the next five years. While some consumers are protesting the brand, those outraged with Trump’s recent executive order on immigration are showing more support than ever, applauding Starbucks and starting a #DrinkStarbucks hashtag in response.

Expressing outright political views is still seemingly taboo for companies, however, we’ve seen that communicating political affiliation correctly can actually bring brands and consumers closer together. In the end, firms who should proceed with caution when speaking on such matters. They should possess a clear awareness and understanding of both their customer base and own brand image, and how political affiliations can thwart this image in the mind of the public.

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