The thing that stuck with me from my very first job was a piece of advice my boss gave me during my first shift: Don’t let customers discuss politics or religion. That would mean you could not be political in your business.
There are several reasons why the owner passed this knowledge down, but the biggest factor was avoiding offending anyone, which could result in tension, arguments and lost customers. Heck, people have started wars over these sensitive issues.
That hasn’t necessarily stopped business owners from throwing their hats into the political ring. During the 2012 election, Jeff Reiter, owner of the Blue Plate Lunch Counter & Soda Fountain in Portland, Oregon, proudly displayed a 2008 Barack Obama campaign sign inside his business.
Be Political or Not Political?
“We encourage political discussions,” he told NPR. “I think we should be talking about these things, and this is a good place to talk about them.”
Reiter lost some customers, but he didn’t believe it hurt business. The same was true for David Cooper, owner of Premier Platforms Inc. in Byron, Georgia. Cooper was critical of President Obama and purchased signs declaring, “Things could be worse. Re-elect Obama — he’ll prove it.” Copper said most customers were supportive and that the number of complaints he’d received was in the single digits.
Is airing your political allegiances a smart business move? Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University, said business owners need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of making such an overt statement.
2016: The election that changed everything
Business and politics, either through donations or vocal support of a candidate, have mixed in the past. But, in my personal opinion, the 2016 presidential election changed this for good.
It was such a heated, divisive and historical election that businesses almost had to get political. You had Mark Cuban loudly championing Hillary Clinton, while Peter Thiel enthusiastically backed Donald Trump. This resulted in unexpected business shifts, such as Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit, and her organization, Project Include, cutting ties with incubator Y Combinator because of its association with Thiel.
Of course, things got even more intense following Trump’s victory. Last year, we witnessed Uber plunge and Lyft take off following the airport protests of President Trump’s highly contested immigration ban. Since then, Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has stepped aside.
Budweiser aired an ad that illustrated the story of Adolphus Busch during the Super Bowl, underscoring historical perspectives of immigration in the U.S. Conservatives have boycotted Starbucks, Keurig, Amazon and Target. Nordstrom stopped selling Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, much to the displeasure of the president. And a whole slew of companies have profited from the president’s unpopularity.
It appears, in the era of Trump, businesses have to pick a side.
The repercussions of mixing politics and business
What’s the worst that could happen if you get political?
For starters, you’ll certainly alienate some customers who don’t want to be associated with your politics. After all, we’re all unique individuals who have opposing viewpoints and values. Just because you support a politician or political view doesn’t mean they do — which means they may jump ship to a brand that shares their views or supports their candidate.
Secondly, you may be misinterpreting information if you’re not familiar with a political issue. As a result, this can make customers lose trust in you. Take, for example, Jenna Fischer — she tweeted inaccurate details regarding the GOP tax bill. She absolutely had the right to share her views, but the backlash she endured highlighted why it’s sometimes smart to stay out of political debates when we don’t have all the facts.
Worst of all, wading into political waters can make it appear that you’re exploiting an issue. Remember the backlash Dodge received during this past Super Bowl? Some felt using an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon was opportunistic and didn’t fit the brand.
The benefits of mixing politics and business
There are also advantages to getting into the political ring.
The most obvious is that it can strengthen the bond you have with customers. While you may lose some people who don’t share your views, this also means you’ll develop an extremely dedicated and loyal fan base. Starbucks, for instance, has an indelibly loyal customer base. This is, in part, because of its very open stances on social and political issues, despite the boycotts and backlash the brand has occasionally suffered for its transparency.
Another perk is that this can make you appear more authentic and establish you as a leader. For example, Jia Wertz, the founder and CEO of Studio 15, set a company mission to empower women through fashion, using methods such as funding female entrepreneurs in Africa. She said she felt it was an issue the company needed to address, aiding women with both financial help and a voice.
Finally, it differentiates you from your competitors. Think back to Uber and Lyft: Uber was blasted for price gouging during protests at JFK International Airport and Kalanick being a member of the president’s economic advisory board. Lyft donated $1 million to the ACLU. The result? Lyft surpassed Uber in total downloads on Jan. 29, 2017.
Should your business be political?
There’s no right or wrong answer. However, John Mose, leader of the public relations practice at marketing agency Cramer-Krasselt, says if you’re trying to sell to everyone, the upside is nonexistent.
Syed Akhter, a marketing professor at Marquette University, agreed, saying businesses should remain politically neutral. Their major constituency, he indicated, was their customer base, not a political party.
Maria Patterson, an assistant clinical professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has a different take. “It’s absolutely critical for businesses to make a considered decision of what are our values,” she said to CNBC. “Once you determine what your values are in business, then you make decisions of what kind of engagements you’ll make in the political arena.”
How to be political in business
There’s also a more moderate approach.
Ricky Klein of Groennfell Meadery keeps his business apolitical, except when it comes to key social issues. He says he and his team believe there are some issues that aren’t inherently political, such as human-driven climate change or water pollution.
Still on the fence? Think about your brand’s values. Is this something you’re passionate about? Consider, too, your audience: If you know the majority of your customers are conservative, why anger them with your opposing views?
If you opt to take a step into the political arena, keep it relevant. If the issue has anything to do with your brand, it might be worth supporting. Google, Apple and Facebook have done this in regard to limiting legal immigration and DACA because these companies have employees who would be affected.
Politics can hurt a business as much as they can help. Business owners who are on the fence likely don’t feel strongly enough to stick their necks out for their political views, but those who are willing to stake their businesses on their beliefs may find it’s well worth the trouble.