Insights

Brands and Politics: What to Do When Your Brand is Entangled in Politics

By Steve Osomba In Marketing & Public Relations November 29, 2017

The 2017 general elections were arguably the most heated yet in the long spanning history of Kenyan elections that is usually characterized by a supercharged environment. This year's elections were puzzling in many ways. No doubt about it. While we are used to the idea of politicians engaging in elections, we had some popular brands being roped in as well. By now, you certainly have encountered the hashtag #Resist on various social media platforms. The cause is being championed by the National Resistance Movement [NRM], an arm of Kenya’s opposition, National Super Alliance. Just to provide context, the NRM provided a list of companies that Kenyan [their supporters] should boycott for allegedly participating in election malpractices that subdued free, fair and credible elections. The said companies as given by the movement include Safaricom, Brookside Dairy, and Bidco Oil Refineries.

To participate or not?

Politics is a tricky affair for brands, however, they are under pressure like never before to take political stances more so to political issues that are dear to the hearts of their customers. While it’s tempting owing to its appeal to all or part of brand’s customers, taking a political stance means that a brand is pushing a political agenda of an interested constituency. Nevertheless, brands should think through before meddling in a country’s political affairs.

To grow, brands have to keep accumulating bigger numbers of customers constantly. They can’t afford to alienate a bigger percentage of their buyer base by participating in politics more so a charged atmosphere like the ones we experience in Kenya. Many assume that brands can grow by aligning themselves with political actions congruent to their customers. More often than not, it backfires. Brands must continuously seek new markets to grow and these markets, as well as existing ones, have varying political affiliations. The takeaway is clear: Brands must have widespread, crosscutting appeal in order to grow. Brands can’t burrow into a political niche and expect to gain market share. Brands have to appeal across the board and bring many different people together. It is important to note that brands win only through unification. When you look at big brands, they thrive because they unite a diverse group of consumers with divergent values and preferences.

Impact of Boycotts

Victories not won at the polls can be prosecuted all over again in the marketplace, where another tactic is within easy reach-boycotts. The three brands didn’t move fast enough to show proper explanation on the allegations laid against them and as a result full-fledged boycott was rallied against them. According to the movement, the boycott is yielding results but that’s difficult to verify. Safaricom, for example, recorded the highest share price during the boycott. So the jury is still out there. Nonetheless, brands need to take boycott seriously. Some boycotts can be effective. National boycotts have an effect when they are directed against a single firm and led by a major organization that can fund sustained media coverage. It helps if the boycotted firm is high on the NSE 20 Index share because companies of that size make for good press.

But even sustained, properly managed national boycotts don't affect sales very much. When they work, they affect brand reputation, which in turn affects the stock price. That gets a company's attention. Research by Northwestern University business professor Brayden King finds that for these kinds of boycotts, stock values drop by an average of 0.5% on the day the boycott hits national media, then a little more than that for each day of media coverage. The vast majority of boycotts don't operate in this way, though. In aggregate, only about 25% of boycotts result in any sort of concession from the targeted company.

What to do

  • Distance yourself from the political storm by making your stand clear: All the companies mentioned in the boycott list have remained mum over the allegations leveled against them. This has given credence and some think that they are actually culpable. When your brand is entangled in politics, make your position known and reiterate your commitment to serving the customers from all political views. Explain the situation clearly and make the public understand that you had no ulterior motive and that your allegiance to customers comes first.

  • Apologize for your transgressions: If it’s true, sometimes being honest and transparent about your transgressions can save you a lot of trouble. Coming out to confess and illustrating ways you will make up for the missteps can go a long way in showing that you accept the fault and you are willing to take corrective actions. This will kill the media buzz created by speculations. However, it may take a while depending on the political scandal.

  • Avoid going into politics and highly-charged social issues: There is probably little for brands to gain today by going out of their way to speak out about political and social topics on which reasonable, decent people can have very different opinions. The lack of potential for benefit appears to be confirmed by a recent survey conducted by 4A’s and SSRS, which found that "consumers are not looking to brands to take a position on political or social issues" and “only a small percentage of consumers are moved to buy from positive messaging.”

  • Focus on uncontroversial values and causes: One of the primary reasons brands are jumping into politics is that the people running them truly believe that there are politically-tinged issues that are too important not to weigh in on. Additionally, in some cases, they want to signal to their employees that they disagree with political policies that are controversial.

But avoiding politics doesn't mean that brands have to embrace amorality. In fact, it's actually ill-advised for brands to pretend they don't have a conscience as numerous studies have shown that for many consumers, brand perception and purchase intent can be influenced by a company's CSR efforts. But instead of getting political or taking a side on highly-charged social issues, brands can demonstrate that they have a conscience by building their initiatives and marketing campaigns around core values and causes that just about everyone can get behind. While these initiatives are not directly tied to political and social topics that are in the news, they allow the brands behind them to demonstrate their values and commitment to causes that few people are likely to object to.

Conclusion

At its best, marketing is a powerful unifying force. Brands prefer to build their franchises on common ground. While it is smart and safe for brands to ignore politics and to make most boycotts a secondary concern, this is not to say that brands can sit on the sidelines. Politics and lifestyles can no longer be treated separately. Lifestyles are the central focus of brands, so as politics and lifestyles blend, brands will need a new vocabulary for addressing consumers.

Stakeholders care a lot about the values and character of those with whom they work, so they will put brands under a tighter microscope. Increasingly, brands are finding themselves as the proctor of last resort for enforcing civility and decency in public life. Even more, brands are the last bastion of optimism in a wary world cloven into rival political factions.

Brands must answer these challenges with purpose, not with politics. Political brands will get lost in a scrum of bitter divisiveness. Brands make a difference that matters when they take a stand as brands with purpose, not a political agenda.

Additional sources from American Marketing Association & EConsultancy