Now Is the time for brands to take a stand — or Is It?

Article written by Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg, originally published on Forbes.

To CMOs, politics can be like the Sirens of Greek mythology to marketers. The potential for brands to create emotional bonds with customers based on shared values is tauntingly alluring. Yet many fear that the controversy they invite is like a pile of sharp rocks lying in wait under the waves.

When I discussed this story with the editor of this channel, she told me that no less than a dozen marketing pros approached her after the election asking to write stories about why now is the time for brands to take a stand. That makes sense — advertisers are in the emotional connections business, and the Don Drapers of the world can see that this is rich emotional turf. But for CMOs, the decision to "take a stand" is not so simple.

This morning, over scones and coffee, the VP of marketing for a $15 billion retailer who told me her brand wouldn’t touch controversy with a 10-foot pole. The likelihood of alienating 50% of their customers was far too daunting.

Let’s face it — every brand faces its own reality. When Patagonia came out against Trump’s order rescinding national monuments, they were hardly taking a daring risk with their customers. For Target — a brand that serves a much larger and broader cross-section of the population — standing up for equality with its transgender bathroom policy led to widespread boycotts that had an impact on the bottom line.

The agency I run, Traction, witnessed this first-hand in recent weeks when I wrote a LinkedIn post called “Why We’re Offering Paid Leave for Activism”  about our new Days of Action policy that allows employees two days per year to participate in democracy — however they see fit. They can join a protest, volunteer for a cause, or support a candidate.

My partners and I thought a social justice benefit that allowed employees to follow their own beliefs to benefit the greater good was necessary. We also thought it was innocuous. So, we were surprised when Alt-Right websites Breitbart and DailyWire wrote about it, and we were deluged with angry, belligerent and hateful emails, social posts, even phone calls. We were called everything from Facists to Socialists to “Libtards” to “candy asses.”

We also had a far greater passionate outpouring of support. Clients wrote to tell us they were proud of us. Great talent came out of the woodwork to ask if we were hiring. Our employees expressed pride in our actions. Reporters called.

It's great that companies like Facebook are dipping their toe in the water for pet causes—but they are not taking it far enough. It's easy to rally the troops when you have a one-off, self-motivated business issue like immigration to stand behind. It's great PR for the brand, so for Zuck this is a no-brainer.

But let's face it: We are not living in times that call for one-offs.

Standing up for what's right needs to become endemic. It has to be ongoing. And businesses are getting a tax cut — we can afford to support it.

But once you broaden that scope, will the troops stay rallied? Not everyone has the same beliefs. Even in my San Francisco "libtard" creative agency, we have a range of political views. If we discriminate against a single one of them, we are hypocrites.

Doing what's right makes good business sense. 78% of people agree companies should take action to address the important issues facing society. As an independent business of 50 employees, we can pretty much do what feels right and just be accountable to ourselves.

Large, public companies don't have that luxury — but they can still do what's right (and gain the benefit of taking a stand) without insulting and alienating customers who have different views. Taking a stand simply has to become sustainable.

Of all the polarized feedback that came with people surmising our intentions with Days of Action, the one that surprised me the most was being called a Facist. Liberals love to call Trump a Facist, but it was quite startling to get a glimpse of the other side's views. In advertising, we like to talk about "universal truths" as the essence of great ideas that connect with people on an emotional level. I think the word “Facist” is just a label that people on both sides of the aisle are using to describe a universal truth — it’s clear to most of us that the angry, intolerant, polarized discourse in our society is a threat to our democracy.

Barack Obama was right in his farewell speech when he said, "It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy." That's why Traction put our money where our mouth is on this policy. That is why we're seeing an emerging trend of companies offering social-justice benefits.

And that is why this trend is going to continue to grow.

Traction Digital Agency

Traction is an award-winning agency based in San Francisco that believes everything is interactive. And we kick ass.