The Vital Role of Brands in a Politically Divided Country

The November 2016 election cycle in the United States is one to remember. We’re all feeling its outcomes: divisiveness, cultural clashes, an era of “alternative facts,” a more pronounced "us vs. them" mentality and the distrust of leaders and corporate entities from their constituents and customers.  

This divisive political climate is impacting brands as they are being flung into the political fray. Kellogg’s, citing their corporate values, recently decided to cease advertising at Breitbart News, and faced public backlash and a cry for boycotts of their products. We’re witnessing the #GrabYourWallet movement, with consumers making buying decisions and brand choices based on political beliefs. There have been tweets by our commander-in-chief giving preference to certain brands, such as L.L. Bean, and calling others out for proposed plans to move factories overseas. There has been public outcry over messages by corporate leaders, such as when New Balance unwillingly veered into the spotlight for something a senior leader said. Now more than ever, brands are in the political spotlight and have begun to understand the gravity of this, their influence, and even how to shape this climate into an opportunity.

Brands now have a particularly visible chance to test — and even strengthen — their purpose, values, and courage. Opportunities are emerging for brands to reconnect with consumers on a deeper level and to be more transparent with their messaging. To avoid being targeted, brands are starting to speak out first and really embrace radical transparency as a default position. Some are speaking out, before being spoken for by opposition. Being upfront about your brand’s position is key to avoiding or standing up to political backlash; being courageous and outspoken about your brand’s values is key in today’s world. Target recently took initiative to install gender-neutral bathrooms in stores, and did not back down after facing criticism for the decision. This type of bold action resonates well with consumers, and research overwhelmingly shows that consumers tend to respond well to transparency and leadership qualities in consumer brands.

Importantly, brands are starting to tap into the enormous influence they have over popular culture and are starting to lead us toward a brighter future. Brands can use this influence to encourage diversity, bridge divides, further our common values and benefit from this elevated leadership status along the way. Some forward-looking brands are using their influence to connect with consumers in a way that’s aligned with their values and purpose. For example, last November, Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh went public with his request that customers refrain from bringing firearms into their stores. This caused backlash of both the positive and negative variety,  but Levi’s stands by this decision as it reflects their values as a brand, even though the topic is controversial. Similarly Starbucks received backlash after former CEO Howard Schultz endorsed Hillary Clinton, leading to the #trumpcup fallout.

Brands that are courageous and outspoken about their purpose are the ones that can usher forth an inclusive, diverse and accepting culture. Brands have the power and influence to change our current divisive cultural climate into one where people connect with each other and accept one other’s differing positions in healthy discourse. This is the key to The Good Life. The Good Life is inclusive, it is diverse, and accepting of a full spectrum of viewpoints. Many in the global SB community have analyzed this for years, and have concluded that brands have not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility to defend inclusivity, diversity and other values of the good life — and that it’s in the best interest of all their stakeholders. By not backing down when critically important human values are under attack, brands can shine by asserting important leadership qualities that are lacking in government and elsewhere. In that sense, what was previously considered an attribute of an “activist brand” may now become a necessity in many cases if we are to defend good life values collectively.

Brands can leverage this power by testing  their purpose, values and courage and to reconnect with consumers on a deeper level. But not only will brands test their purpose, they also can tap into the enormous influence they have over popular culture and common values, and lead us toward a brighter future. Brands can navigate the current political climate in a way that benefits them and their consumers, as well as the greater whole of society. Brands play a big role in shaping our culture and confidence during these times of great change.

Join us at Sustainable Brands ’17 Detroit, where we’ll host multiple discussions on this complex yet vitally important topic. Brands will discuss the very real implications of a more involved and more politicized consumer base. Hundreds of business leaders will showcase exemplary win-win steps their companies are making to live out their positive purpose and lead us toward the good life.


Nassy Avramidis, Content Development Manager, Sustainable Brands

January 28, 2017

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