How brands can avoid 'screwing up' when taking a political stand

Be like Patagonia (and Chik-fil-A), not like Pepsi.

In times of political turmoil, conventional wisdom tells marketers to steer far away from partisanship, or taking a stand on any potentially divisive issue. But recent studies show that audiences are increasingly open to—even openly favor—brands that are willing to weigh in on the issues of the day.

For brands with sincerely held beliefs, the how is more complicated than the why. Dick’s Sporting Goods recently won accolades for removing assault-style weapons from its Field and Stream stores in response to the Parkland school shooting. But poorly executed attempts to cash in on political discourse can backfire spectacularly—see Dove bottles and Pepsi. 

Speaking out is "becoming table stakes—it’s not a nice-to-have anymore. It’s becoming a must-have," said Latia Curry, principal at Rally, at her "Politics—Bad for Business?" presentation at SXSW on Tuesday. "The number 1 question I hear is, ‘How do we not screw up?" 

The key is issue fluency, Curry said. Brands need to "know why they’re doing what they’re doing." It connects their beliefs to their actions. Fluent brands can avoid the pitfalls of speaking awkwardly or out of turn. Even with the right intentions, brands that lake fluency come across as tone deaf, like Starbuck’s #RaceTogether initiative, which was lampooned for trying to force delicate conversations between complete strangers. 

On the flip side, brands that lack fluency but try to cash in on movements or issues without making internal changes risk ending up in "the Pepsi zone," Curry said, a reference to the Kendall Jenner spot that explored "what would happen if the Black Lives Matter movement was led by a 21-year-old white supermodel with a can of soda."

The polar opposite of Pepsi’s dud is Patagonia’s long-term advocacy for the environment. The brand understands the issue, has consistently taken a stand and models its internal policies in ways that promote sustainability. It’s a lofty position to aspire to. Brands that understand issues but haven’t yet built up a reputation for alignment with those issues can only reap short-term benefits. 

Curry pointed to Lyft and its advocacy around immigration issues after competitor Uber stumbled. Lyft demonstrated issue fluency with their timing, but the advocacy hasn’t yet been sustained long enough for audiences to consistently link the two. 

It may surprise many who advocate that brands take political stands, but Curry said some of the brands reaping the greatest benefits are those that align with conservative positions, like Chik-fil-A and Hobby Lobby. "It’s less about Republican or Democrat and more about expressing clear conservative values." The brands close on Sundays and fight marriage equality and reproductive rights. Whatever one thinks of their politics, "they are consistent and strong in walking the walk."