Thought Leadership

How Brands Should Navigate the Minefield of Political Pitfalls this Summer

Originally released on

Marketers must embrace the art of political communications, financial discretion and deep insights into their consumers

By: Mark Penn. Published on June 09, 2022

The temperature isn’t the only thing heating up this summer. The next few months promise to be chock-full of potentially divisive issues for corporations as the midterm elections accelerate, the Supreme Court prepares opinions and Congress mobilizes on some of the most hotly contested issues of our age: the 2nd amendment, abortion rights, freedom of speech and more. In the private sector, Elon Musk is taking over Twitter (maybe?), forcing a new chapter in the free speech debate, and the enduring fallout from the Russia-Ukraine conflict promises to refocus how brands tackle geopolitical conflict.

In short, summer 2022 will be a pressure cooker for brands and politics—all happening against the backdrop of bitter partisanship with the two parties duking it out for legislative supremacy in the midterms. What does this mean for you? It means that one group or another is very likely to come knocking and asking you to take their side on these hot-button issues. Sometimes they will add an “or else” to the request. Often it will be an employee petition.

It is clear, especially if you offer a mass-market product, that how you respond may literally determine billions of dollars in revenue and reputation, with the potential to be far more important to the company than its entire marketing spend. While there are some notable exceptions, many times businesses that have forayed into politics have split their consumer bases, cost the company significant points in brand image and plopped them dead center in the middle of big controversies. So how best to navigate today’s environment?

Take a position–if it’s close to your business

First, the closer the issue is to what the company does, the more important it is for the company to take a position. For example, you would expect Boeing to take a position on new regulations that limit commercial airflights because of climate change. The farther removed from what the company does, and that company’s expertise, the more red lights should flash as it considers speaking out. Sometimes there is a safe middle ground. On abortion, for example, offering travel benefits for those seeking an abortion if they wind up in a heavily restricted state is probably a safe response to any abortion ruling because it puts all your employees on an equal footing.

Helping the planet, teaching kids how to read and assisting the community with healthcare are seen as consistent with good company values—as opposed to wading into the mix of the political issues that will be front and center in the midterm elections. Activities predicated on simply “doing good” will always work for almost any company. But that is no defense to employees who want the company to take a strong position on political issues that are more the arena of midterm debates than boardroom conversations.

Assemble a balanced team of consultants

My basic recommendation on how to handle these issues is to have a process in place that rigorously studies all the potential positions your brand can take on the issue. Use research to see what employees, consumers and shareholders think about the issue and your role in it. Assemble a team of a bipartisan consultants—a Democrat, a Republican and a financial communications expert are ideal—to study this and make joint, across-the-aisle recommendations. That is the key to gaining a fair understanding of the potential impact taking a position can have on a business and its stakeholders—both internal and external. In the art of politics, every word counts and often those in business may miss the nuances of political communications. At the same time, relying on experts from just one side of the aisle is a common mistake brands will make. Those consultants will tell you “It’s gonna be great”—and it will be, for the half of your consumer base they represent, while the other half might start throwing your products out of the window.

If you look at the Axios-Harris Poll 100 or the Edelman Trust Barometer—two of the leading indices for corporate reputation—both reported this year that direct involvement in political issues that weren’t explicitly related to a company’s core services proved to be risky business, dragging otherwise “friendly” brands into the din of political discourse. Many of those companies who jumped headlong into furious political debates faced serious setbacks in their ratings with consumers.

Be consistent in your values

What is clear is that consumers are looking for consistency in values. And looking under the hood of recent brand foibles on purpose, the stroke of death is rarely the voicing of an opinion, but that opinion being incongruous with a brand’s stated purpose, key demographics or product alignment. As John Gerzema, co-chair of the Harris Poll, said, “Disney’s about-face shows the reputational hit that comes when the public perceives you as being calculating rather than clear in what you believe in and stand for.” Brands including Nike and Patagonia are clear and consistent in their views and those views have become a core element of their product offerings; this is quite different from the rushed, scattershot positions some CEOs have rushed to put out each time a new issue arises.

It’ll take attunement to the art of political communications, financial discretion and deep insights into your consumers and how they relate to your brand’s stated values to navigate what promises to be a minefield of political pitfalls this summer.



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