Can brands play it safe anymore?

For a long time, companies tried to be apolitical, staying out of divisive issues. In the near future, a business that doesn’t take sides on a divisive issue will have a scant few customers.

For a long time, companies tried to be apolitical, staying out of divisive issues.

That made sense because the concept of branding came to light during the mass-market era. To be successful, brands had to be “plain vanilla,” because they wanted as big a market as possible.

In the near future, a business that doesn’t take sides on a divisive issue will have a scant few customers.

“Are we at the dawn of an era [when] we’ll consume along political lines?” asks Fortune.

Yes, we are, and not just political lines, though that is where it has begun. In this “post-trust” era, consumers are holding brands accountable for their decisions and the appearance of “aiding the enemy.”

Recently, we saw this with the grassroots effort to demand that Shopify take down the Breitbart site it hosts. Though I am no fan of Breitbart, I appreciate that Shopify stood its ground on hosting an array of viewpoints.

At the same time, it’s not a big stretch to see Shopify officials deciding that either:

  1. We can’t serve this type of customer because we don’t agree with their philosophy, or
  2. We’re willing to serve this type of customer, but we’re not willing to deal with the negative backlash of doing so.

Though the Washington Post says that “in terms of large-scale influence, analysts say it’s unlikely boycotts will make or break mainstream retailers,” I suggest that is wishful thinking.

Related: Find out how to make meaningful connections with your customers and the news media at the Practical PR Summit.

Boycotts signal values

Although the primary objective of a boycott is revenue impact, it is also a “signal.” When you join a boycott, you are telling your friends and family, “I believe firmly in this issue.” (Presumably, you are taking away the money you would otherwise spend and finding a substitute, so ideally you are making a sacrifice in your own tastes, but that is a side issue.)

Boycotts signal values. Customers signal it, and now, increasingly, some are organizations signaling it as well.

Whether at the behest of founders, management or employees, some organizations are taking a boycott stance of their own.

We have seen an advertising boycott of Breitbart News, the NBA All-Star Game moved away from North Carolina, Salesforce punishing the state of Indiana and even outdoor retailers boycotting Utah over public-land policies.

These are all signals about what the organizations stand for beyond the normal integrity, commitment to customers, etc.

Empowered consumers are attacking brands that provide a service to an organization they don’t like. Some organizations are attacking states or other organizations.

Essentially, the lines are being drawn and it comes down, ironically, to something that is at the core of Branding 101: trust.

Trust is the core issue

“Everything about modern life works against community and trust,” offers a powerful article in the Washington Post.

There’s a worldwide crisis in trust, and in times of crisis, we seek comfort.

Whether it’s comfort food or a good movie, it will increasingly be the comfort of knowing that money we spend is firmly aligned with our values.

Knowing that our friends approve or disapprove of our purchases will become a key “purchase consideration.” Once customers buy, there will be an expectation of “signaling” to reaffirm membership in a group that is for or against something.

Because trust is at a premium, people will not just take your word for it. You’ll have to prove it.

What this means for branding’s future

First off, it will no longer be acceptable to say, “We just provide the service; we don’t condone or endorse the organization.”

In the eyes of many, this is the equivalent of arms merchant’s assertion, “We just sell to both sides and let them sort it out.”

Either you make a call, or the call is made for you, as New Balance found out the hard way.

In this world of organizations’ taking a side, that’s not going to cut it. Claiming you want to serve everyone is essentially opening up a competitive opportunity for the rival organization that says, “We’re only going to serve Community X.”

Before social media and before blockchains (in which a brand can prove that it spends in line with its values), this wasn’t a profitable approach.

Soon it will be—and it might be the ideal strategy.

Jeremy Epstein is CEO of Never Stop Marketing. In December 2016, he edited and published a collaborative e-book called “Blockchains in the Mainstream: When Will Everyone Else Know?” A version of this post first appeared on SmartBrief.

Topics: PR

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.