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Mixing messages: In today's tumultuous climate, connecting your marketing to social and political events is tricky. Our experts show you how. A SPECIAL REPORT: Branding and controversy

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Marketing experts discuss how companies can handle a charged political world.
Marketing experts discuss how companies can handle a charged political world. - ()

In honor of International Women's Day, Bananas Smoothies and Frozen Yogurt sold a “Common Cents” smoothie to women for 80 cents and to men for $1 to raise awareness surrounding the wage gap.

This was not the first time a brand owned by Villa Restaurant Group in Morristown had publicly participated in a controversial issue.

A few months earlier, shortly after Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to President Donald Trump, had used the phrase “alternative facts” to spin coverage on NBC’s Meet the Press, Villa Italian Kitchen announced its nationwide launch of an #AlternateFacts pizza — a zero-calorie, meat lovers pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage, ham and bacon.

The stunt resulted in 85 stories, generating over 232 million consumer media impressions, according to Brian M. Lowe, CEO and president of BML Public Relations in Florham Park, the agency responsible for both marketing campaigns.

“I think it is important for brands to be involved in conversations related to social and political issues, even if they are not taking a hard stance,” Lowe said. “There are a lot of eyeballs on the issues and, as marketers, our job is to put the brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible while being as careful as possible not to polarize our customer base.”

Welcome to “brand” marketing in 2017: A time when companies often tie their marketing to current political and social events.

And do so at their own peril.

While these marketing campaigns shot “straight down the middle,” without openly aligning themselves with any political affiliation, Lowe said, that is not always the case.

Some companies have picked sides. And they haven’t always come out ahead.

Consider Starbucks’ commitment to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years; or “Uber vs. Lyft” on the issues of immigration during the first travel ban; or, “What does Thinx underwear think of the Trump administration?”

The nation has collectively ushered in a new era of corporate social responsibility, one that extends far past charitable giving and community integration into companies engaging in politically and socially charged conversations to align their brands with specific values that will help to create awareness while boosting their bottom lines.

And they do it whether they choose to or not.

Even companies that try to avoid controversy often end up at the core of it. Take Target’s removal of its gender-specific signage, or the executive leadership of both Under Armour and 84 Lumber being called into question by their own brand ambassadors for their political beliefs and statements, or any retailer selling Ivanka Trump brand products.

Consumers today are even boycotting The Walt Disney Co. for promoting inclusivity.

In the wake of such a politicized and polarized marketplace, consumers and employees are increasingly investing their dollars and time in brands that support their personal values, and are adamantly working against brands that oppose them.

How do you do it the right way?

NJBIZ spoke with a number of marketing experts regarding this issue, including:

The result?

These New Jersey marketers overwhelmingly stated that, while there are arguments on both sides as to whether or not companies should publicly involve themselves with specific political statements, there are massive benefits to aligning one’s brand with policies and social issues that match the values demonstrated by their businesses.

Here are some do’s and don’ts.

NJBIZ: It seems we have seen an increase in companies that are not only putting their marketing dollars where their values are, but are benefiting from that kind of publicity within a divided country. What are your thoughts?

Vincent Velasquez: There are a lot of things that American consumers don’t know about until they get exposed by the media. And there is this generationally driven evolution of public versus private personas and a desire for those, especially in regard to future politicians and CEOs with any influence of power, to merge their personal values and professional lives. … I think as we move forward with the president, as well as with any other personality that exists in pop culture that has accrued followers, whether that be celebrities, politicians or CEOs, there is this growing understanding that an asterisk and a disclaimer now comes with. There is President Trump and then there is Donald Trump. For example, there are things that I may support as a CEO and an executive that are good for society, but my company may not actually benefit from my being involved in such causes.

Tara Dowdell: I would argue that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in today’s environment. Whatever a company does behind closed doors is going to make its way into the public domain at some point. And, since the majority of consumers today actively want to know that they are not putting money into the hands of a company that supports something bad, I say, the more transparent, the better. … I also don’t see how engaging with or supporting any sort of discriminatory practice can help a business’s bottom line, but in such a polarized, political environment, these companies may simply fall to one side of it if they are located in a part of the country where the majority of people agree with their beliefs. But, while they may benefit from an audience now, they are harming themselves with future audiences as people become more tolerant. Sustainability is beyond right now — it is easy to measure who was it that bought something from you; it is harder to measure who did not purchase from you as a result of your business practices.

Denise Blasevick: If you see that, by and large, your best customers fit the same sorts of values or political affiliations that your brand has, there is an opportunity there. Yes, you will alienate some people, but you may be compensated by an audience that will support you more because they believe in what you are doing.

Vicky Llerena: I think it is important that companies strategically align themselves with specific social issues or particular political viewpoints because of social media. People are on social media sites liking pages and following certain brands because they align themselves with their values and viewpoints and the causes that they support. Social media is now where we spend most of our time, and that is where brands can most significantly align themselves with global issues. While it is always dangerous for a brand to take a political stance on any issue, it is really difficult for a brand to remain apolitical and to avoid the trending issues that people are talking about. Rather, brands are asking themselves how they can instead capitalize on such conversations.

Norris Clark: I have never seen our climate so politicized as it has been recently. I mean, we are here debating about whether retailers should carry Ivanka Trump’s line at all when Trump’s senior adviser is telling us to buy it. … The Trump family brought their business into the political arena and made it a part of their presidential campaign story. Trump attracted a group of people based on a certain set of values, and we have moved into a new era because Trump inextricably linked his businesses with his political campaign and established this set of strong values for both. … I’ve been in politics — you cannot make everyone happy. There is no story you can tell that everyone will buy into. But hopefully, most people will.

Jessica Levin: If a company of any size has clearly defined their core values, which is incredibly important to the culture of their brand, making the decision whether or not to get involved in a particular issue becomes a lot easier. Whether it is politics or a charity, if you know who you are, you know what the conversation should be. … We also live in a very transparent world in which everyone second-guesses everything. The more that things can be made intentional the better. The more a company can step up and demonstrate and say, ‘This wasn’t an accident; we did this on purpose because we believe in it,’ that strengthens their brand and the action in which they are taking.

NJBIZ: What are the benefits for businesses making a public statement for or against a specific policy or social issue?

VV: More than ever, top executives have to recruit, and part of that recruitment effort means getting themselves in the news. And, as we no longer operate with a ‘Wizard of Oz’ mentality where someone in a glass office does not have to be amongst his or her consumers or potential employees, the law of probability states that, when you are going to speaking engagements, interviewing with the press or writing articles or blogs, you are going to one way or another align yourself with something and be asked questions about it. So, ultimately, I think it is beneficial to be upfront because you need to continue to grow your business.

TD: The internet has allowed us to know more about the companies from which we purchase and more about their supply chains — hence why millennials are far more engaged in social consumerism and more tolerant than previous generations, because they are more interested in ensuring that there is greater equity in society overall. … Their buying power is only going to increase and the opportunity to miss their patronage is great because they will have placed a high value on socially conscious brands.

DB: If you are a brand who is very meaningful to a specific audience, chances are that you may not be to other audiences. That polarization is part of your brand appeal and your consumers belong to your own brand’s tribe. We want to carve out specific areas for our brands to own, and being ‘pretty good’ for everyone generally isn’t the way to do that. Polarization can actually be a very good thing.

VL: In my opinion, anything that sparks conversation increases brand awareness. As we have seen with Trump, even though he has sparked anger amongst many Americans, his name is everywhere and rather unforgettable. Everyone in the world now recognizes his name and his brand. … It invites and opens and sparks conversation amongst followers, even if followers won’t all necessarily agree. But, now, a brand is making more of an impression and conversations are happening within that brands platform and all of a sudden, that brand is trending.

NC: Aligning your brand on one side of the Trump axis, for example, for or against, is a smart business marketing strategy to consider in today’s world. We have all known for years that if you align yourself with a celebrity, it will help you in your marketing, as you will be looked upon more favorably by their fans. But Trump, for example, elicits such strong feelings — people who do not like Trump passionately dislike him and people who like Trump will stick by him even if he shoots somebody in New York City, as he said. So, if you know your audience well enough, you can capitalize on such strong feelings by not only solidifying your relationships with your current consumers, but also gaining consumers from those who hadn’t had a particularly strong feeling about Trump before.

JL: You will end up strengthening your customer base on one side of the issue and alienating the other. But the impact, in theory, could end up being significantly greater than the loss, depending on how divisive the issue is. If you take a stand for one side or the other, people who are in the middle of the road that see a company standing up for something may be even more likely to go and buy from them. So, while you may lose customers at first, the people you are going to gain are going to be more loyal, lifelong customers.

NJBIZ: What are the risks that a company must consider before joining any public conversation?

VV: I think it’s really easy, especially in this climate, for people to confuse a company’s stance on policy with their stance on politics. Whenever I see these things, I wonder — you have to read more than the headlines. A lot of times, companies and CEOs simply get labeled for aligning their companies with policies that benefit their business. … So, if you are going to take a stance, be passionate and confident in the policies you support and not necessarily the politics behind it. … Also, companies have to know that what they are saying and doing is going to get hung up on the topic of the moment, and a lot of people will not click into the other side of what a company is doing. For example, a company may come out and say something about a hot topic while also providing support to causes and organizations that help the opposing view. If a company publicly disagrees with government-funded family leave, but starts its own initiative to provide its employees with family leave, that side of the story may not be told.

Brian Lowe: If your company is close to an issue and you want to make an impact, you better make sure that the principles that you choose to soapbox about are in order in your own house. You never want to play something out in the press for your consumers to have it be discovered that’s not really how it is for you and your company. … Some companies will do this because it is important to consumers at the moment, but it does not mean that their company has always adhered to these particular values.

TD: This country is so polarized that, when companies take a position on anything, it is perceived as political. Clean water, for example, should not be deemed so, but for many Americans right now, anything related to environmental protections is considered political. Clean water should not even be up for debate, because shouldn’t everyone be on the side of protecting the environment? Businesses risk standing up for a policy and than to have it be politicized only to lose consumers or clients based on that. That is an unfortunate risk.

DB: You have to think about your customers and your employees. If you are going to do or say something that alienates them, or make the product or service that they are delivering go against what they believe, your brand will suffer. … And, sometimes, you just won’t want to get involved. Sometimes, your consumers may not be looking for a way to express their political or sociological ideals through everyday purchases.

VL: Brands are aware that every time they issue a statement that the media will either portray it either as positive or negative, and I do believe that it depends on the media outlet how the story will be pitched. Brands should prepare for that by thinking if there are partnerships or alliances that they have with the media that may already align with their message.

 NC: Younger generations, especially, don’t want to hear, ‘Buy our product because it’s great.’ They want brands to tell them a story about how this product fits in with their life that is real and authentic. In doing that, brands will automatically exclude people. But we need to encourage people to be honest about their values upfront because that is now one of the only ways to engage people.

NJBIZ: How does your own firm embrace ‘cause marketing,’ or have you worked with New Jersey-based clients on socially driven marketing campaigns?

TD: We are a socially conscious marketing firm. We currently work with nearly a dozen clients with whom we feel make this world a better place by offering equitable social value and quality in people’s lives. We market ourselves as such and, as a result, we tend to attract clients who share our values. Before I even take a call with a potential client, we do our due diligence on them to make sure they are who they say they are and that they are truly genuinely socially conscious. Same goes for future employees. I have to believe that you share and demonstrate the same values that currently advance us as a company.

DB: We had worked with a national brand based in New Jersey that saw an interesting opportunity to capitalize upon a public social guffaw that was made on the national level. They wanted to do something that was very creative and cheeky and would undoubtedly have gotten buzz. However, it was a reactionary thing that would’ve been implemented using Twitter and, after a long discussion on why their response to that issue was not authentically representative of their brand, they decided not to go ahead with it.

NC: We frequently work with associations that are involved in heated political conversations and campaigns. For example, we helped a group of mothers rattle the (Food & Drug Administration) and get their attention about a prescription drug that they wanted to give to their children. The FDA needed to look at it quicker because children were needlessly dying, so we helped develop a national campaign to get their attention.

JL: Our company practices socially conscious marketing. Service, for us, is a core value — giving back to our communities has always been a part of who I am and of anyone I have hired. I met one of our newest team members through a volunteer opportunity, actually, and I knew he was looking for a job. When we needed a writer, I made him part of our team.

NJBIZ: Finally, if a company chooses to participate in any form of ‘cause marketing,’ are there any best practices to keep in mind?

VV: With so many social media outlets nowadays, companies have to expect that their employee base will speak out. … So, just look at the issues, see which ones you and your business align with, and understand that you are going to have to weather the reduced patronage and employment of those whose views do not align with such policies.

BL: Every morning, when we come into the office, my team and I take a look at the top trending stories taking place regionally, nationally and globally. Then we take a step back and say, might any of this be a fit for our clients, and if so, how can we capitalize on the trending stories? … We try to think of ourselves as consumers — what would resonate most with us? Humor certainly works and, often, when we talk, we will remember that a brand did this or that because that humor has stuck with us over a longer term. In any case, we always get multiple perspectives from our young agency of nine people, in which I am the only male. We talk things through and brainstorm ideas to make sure they are a fit and, most importantly, that there is always positive intent behind them. The idea must be able to go around the room without making anyone feel like they are not on the same page. Then, when we have an idea that is strong, that we know will generate brand awareness and help our client develop core connections with its consumer, sometimes we have to go in and fight for the idea. Some clients take real convincing when we say, ‘We have looked at it from every possible angle, from the positive benefits to how this thing could still potentially blow up in our faces.’ But we always put together a solid strategy and approach and, now, we simply have to build that trust to allow us to move forward.

TD: If you do not tell your story, someone else will. If a client is engaged in socially conscious business practices, clients may think it is self-serving to talk about, but if people don’t know that this part of their business exists, then they are losing an opportunity to connect with audiences who value that about them. Promoting those practices and highlighting the people who the company has helped versus highlighting the company is a good way to promote while helping others.

DB: No. 1, make sure it genuinely aligns with your brand. No. 2, make sure your internal culture supports it and that you explain to your ambassadors and your employees the reason why you are doing what you are doing. Finally, ask why it is so important that your brand be connected to this issue and not simply your people? It is vital to remember that anyone who works for you can communicate with social media, so that messaging has to be strong and it must be bought into.

VL: Language, and the ways in which brands position their statements, is incredibly important. For example, a brand could take a humanitarian stance without sounding too political or emotional by stating that it is working to help progress society, rather than engage in any negative language or buzzword that promotes hate or exclusion of any sort.

NC: No organization can exist without committing themselves to specific values. And if you try to be all things to all people, you will not succeed. … There was a period of time when companies tried to appear as if they were neutral, as they did not want to scare any potential clients or customers away. And that might have worked when there were fewer services and products, but we are now in an economy where there are so many different niches and groups that you have to differentiate yourself by the values you choose to uphold and fight for. Point out any successful company and I can tell you what their values are.

JL: In the conversations that come out of defining core values, part of that has to be defining where and how future leadership aligns with those. There are certain expectations of senior leaders to portray and act within these sets of values. Companies that end up in precarious situations often end up there by accident in incidents involving their senior leadership. If a C-suite executive’s actions do not align with the values of the company, whatever conversations that happen around that, first of all, need to happen within the law and without discrimination, which can be tricky. That’s why the best thing to do would be to be honest from the get-go. If a CEO knows that he will be aligning himself or herself with an organization or a political group on his or her own time and with his or her own money, make sure there is some sort of disclaimer to every written statement that says, ‘This is my personal view and not representative of the company.’

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com

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