Companies including Uber, Lyft, Under Armor, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Anheuser Busch have all found themselves on one side or the other of the current chasm of political polarization.
Celebrities including Beyoncé, Steph Curry, The Rock, Tom Brady, Mike Tyson, and Dennis Rodman have too.
Once upon a time it was business suicide to take sides. But today, more and more companies and celebrities are lining up on one side or the other. Some, like Lyft and Under Armor, have done so because of their leaders’ political leanings. Some, like Nordstrom and Macy’s, say they’ve wound up taking sides simply because of non-partisan business decisions. And some, such as Uber and Budweiser probably found themselves the victims of unintended consequences. They had a political position thrust on them thanks to the interpretation of their behavior by others who view the company’s actions through their own tinted lenses.
What is unarguable is regardless of the reason a company or celebrity finds themselves on one or the other side of a political issue, it can have a drastic effect on their business. As we discussed last week in The Trump Effect, Uber saw their app deleted from 200,000 customers’ smartphones at the same time Starbucks and Lyft saw their businesses increase.
Clearly Uber did not transcend politics.
Of course, taking sides and using partisan positioning to build a brand and a business is nothing new. Sonny Bono, Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, and Clint Eastwood were all darlings of the right long before it became fashionable. Using the same strategy, the backwoods stars of Duck Dynasty rode their conservative positions to incredible, if improbable, success.
On the other side, stars including Barbara Streisand, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, and Harry Belafonte all built their audiences and brands by firmly attaching themselves to America’s progressive movement. And today we see a repeat of this strategy by entertainers including Jennifer Lopez, the members of A Tribe Called Quest, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seth Meyers, and so many more.
But it’s not always strategic. Many companies and celebrities who find themselves on one side or the other probably had no intention of making their opinions so public. Instead, their ideological outings could have been forced by supporters or haters on social media sites. Or maybe it was something else. Because as film producer Seth Berkowitz asked on my blog last week, “did they each (take a stand) based on their strongly held personal beliefs or out of a desire not to have their personal brands devalued by association” with an unpopular sponsor or boss?
Offense? Defense? Circumstance? Whatever it was, none of the following brands were able to transcend politics.
LGBTQ supporters will no longer eat at Chick-Fil-A or shop at Hobby Lobby.
Trump supporters are staying away from Starbucks, Lyft, Pepsi, Oreos, Netflix, Ben & Jerry’s, and – shockingly – the NFL.
Trump detractors are boycotting Yuengling, L.L. Bean, Uber, Under Armor and up to 200 more companies.
Dakota Access Pipeline naysayers are boycotting Bank of America, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, and almost 40 other banks.
Interestingly though, some brands can transcend politics and appeal to both ends of the spectrum. Bruce Springsteen wrote both Born in the USA and The Ghost of Tom Joad and is beloved by both right- and left-leaning music fans. This even though he’s made it very clear where his loyalties lie. For those who weren’t sure, the Boss clearly walked his talk when he repeatedly refused to meet with New Jersey Governor and uber-Springsteen fan Chris Christie.
Steve Jobs is also a hero of both left and right. Rightwing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh fell all over himself to praise the entrepreneur, saying, “Steve Jobs epitomized American exceptionalism.” Somehow Limbaugh ignored the fact that the Apple CEO was the son of a Syrian immigrant and an outspoken liberal who also outsourced his company’s manufacturing to China at the same time he sent his company’s financial assets to Ireland.
Tea Party darling Ayn Rand created objectivism and stood for individual liberty. Because of this, Rand was also an ardent atheist and supporter of reproductive rights. Still, that didn’t stop Speaker of the House Paul Ryan from listing Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, as one of the three books he most frequently rereads. As he told The Weekly Standard, “I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.”
The saying “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” was adapted from William Shakespeare’s “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” And nowhere is either saying truer than in today’s intersection of business and politics. Because today there’s no mission without margin and no margin in the middle.
So stay neutral if you can, take a stand if you must. But for real brand power, take a page from Bruce, Steve, and Ayn.