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The Politics of Trust: How to Stand for Something Without Being a Target

Three Ways A Marketer Can Navigate Political Issues Authentically




The line between political figures and corporations has blurred. Consumers look to companies to stand for something and choose to support or boycott depending on how their values align. Four in five Canadians are more likely to purchase from brands that share their values which implies that voting with your dollar is arguably more common than voter turnout in political elections. It’s becoming clear that people are not confident in political leaders making the changes they wish to see and are turning to corporations to bridge the gap. In fact, there is growing evidence that consumers have more trust in corporations than in the ruling government.


Having a political stance is divisive, and for brands it can have a significant impact. Brands like Tesla, Bud Light and Disney have all fallen under the spotlight due to their political leanings and affiliations, resulting in major disruptions to sales and stock prices. Despite the risk that comes with taking a stance, consumers are demanding one, which means that brands must stand for something, or risk being known for nothing.


This is a paradigm that is new for business. While marketing successes and failures often lead to an impact on the corporate bottom line, now the actions of political leaders and the requirements of lobbyists to represent the company’s interests have become even more complex.


Here are three considerations for the marketer looking to navigate this political paradigm:


1. Be Authentically Who You Are.


Regardless of your political views, it’s critical to be unapologetically authentic. Voices that fold under the criticism of opposing views often fall victim to losing the trust of both sides because they’ve proven there was no authenticity to begin with. As Disney has struggled to deal with the government of Florida's focus on their opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Law (aka: “Don't Say Gay”), the reality was that it was probably the appropriate stand for Disney to take. Disney's reputation as a company is engrained in inclusiveness, and stepping back from speaking up would be detrimental to the image they've projected over time.


Similarly, Patagonia, recently declared the most trusted brand in America, may have a centre-left appeal for its environmental stances, but being authentically who they are has not hurt them with those of a different political stripe. People respond to a company that “knows what it stands for and isn't just chasing consumers.”


2. Don’t Chase an Issue.


The actions of Greenwashing and Pinkwashing are good examples of the threats to brands that leverage complex social issues for capitalism. When support for a cause happens only occasionally or only when tragedy occurs, it alarms consumers and employees on either side of an issue and makes the brand appear insincere. This is where companies need a thoughtful response.


Consumers tend to view activism positively if the company is considered values-oriented but negatively otherwise, with perceived corporate hypocrisy playing a role in purchase behaviour. Being values-oriented means taking an active position on an issue and acting on it consistently. It requires a long-term commitment that applies company resources in a sensible manner. If you feel your company needs to respond to an issue, ask if you are taking part because it aligns with the values you are already applying to your business or if you are being reactionary.


3. Focus on Shared Values


In an increasingly interconnected world where global brands compete for attention, anchoring to shared values helps maintain credibility and create a deeper connection with the consumer. Specifically, brands that can anchor to a sense of common culture and value for money will come out on top.


Common culture is when a brand can authentically represent the values of their home nation. They do not have to declare themselves "American" or "Canadian" in a flag-waving manner because the common culture is baked into the brand and consistently represented in all elements of their marketing. In a recent Canadian ranking for trusted brands, CAA, Home Hardware and Presidents Choice were all in the top five. American domestic brands like John Deere and Trader Joe’s were top five in a US ranking for trusted brands. This is reflected in the years Home Hardware has invested in putting its operators in its advertising and naming the small towns they represent. These are all brands ‘from home’, proudly representing their nation and driven by what Canadian / American audiences want. When studying brands that excel at delivering value for money in Canada and the US, Costco is consistently in the top three in both countries. Being a savvy, modern consumer means knowing how to navigate the marketing landscape and come out a winner. Many brands try to leverage value, but Costco is one of the few that executes it for all consumers in a consistent way. Value accounts for the satisfying store experience but also how buying in bulk serves as a hedge against inflationary prices.


The expectations of large corporations are evolving. As political leaders are less able to affect change in a polarizing climate, more expectations will be put upon companies to speak up for the values held by their customers and employees. Taking a stand on an issue is not something a brand should be afraid of, but rather a part of your organization's values. Commit to a point of view and authentically reinforce it over the long term; avoid becoming reactionary to the politics of the moment; and remember the importance of shared values between your brand and your consumer.


This post is part 5 of a 5-part series, bringing to life our STEEP framework for 2023. The framework presents macro trends that span Socio-Demographic, Technology, Environment, Economy, and Politics to account for each letter in our STEEP acronym. Within this series, we will explore how these macro trends trickle down into our daily lives and provide the modern marketer with cues to help them navigate this evolving reality. Read our last blog on avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing.


We make it our business to stay on top of the trends that impact your business. Through our proprietary Disruption Audit and Trends Analyses services, we help decode what is happening in our world to give you a more fulsome view of the future and chart a clear path forward with actionable business strategies. Learn more or email us at info@sklarwilton.com

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