Brands at the RNC: When Should Brands Take a Stand?

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Social media enables unprecedented and direct consumer-brand interaction, meaning that a brand’s responsiveness and accountability to current events is expected—in fact, it’s almost a requirement, and can be a part of a smart social strategy. But, are brands obligated to express political opinions? At a time when corporations are people and brands are your friends (at least on Twitter), how “human” should brands act?

Brands were notably being political and acting “human” after last year’s Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage when brands ranging from AT&T to YouTube put out celebratory (and often rainbow-ified) messages through their social media accounts. The bet that the ruling would be popular enough to negate any potential backlash turned out to be a smart one, as the legalization of gay marriage was easily framed as a matter of “right vs. wrong”—and not “left vs. right,” amplifying consumers’ sense that the brands were on the “right side.”

As a divisive and unresolved political event, the 2016 Republican National Convention offers a more interesting test case. In the months leading up to this year’s RNC, a number of major companies announced that they were scaling back their participation—Coca Cola, for example, donated $75,000 this year, compared to the $660,000 it donated in 2012. Several other companies that sponsored the 2012 RNC announced that they would simply not sponsor this year’s, privately citing Donald Trump’s controversial positions. Additionally, news broke this week that over two dozen corporations and individuals reneged a collective $8.1 in pledged donations to the event, leaving the convention with a multi-million dollar shortfall.

Despite the huge number of eyeballs promised, it’s clear that Donald Trump has cost organizers in Cleveland millions of dollars because marketers are wary of the potential damage to their brands by association with him. Many of these companies, including Walgreens, Wells Fargo, and UPS, have said nothing about their divestment, telegraphing mainly that they simply wish to avoid associating their brands with negativity, taking the default marketing approach of avoiding controversy. Others, like Apple and HP, have used this event as an opportunity to take a stand directly in opposition to Trump, reflecting a strategy focused on expressing brand values through action as opposed to simply supporting popular opinion (as in the case of brands cheering gay marriage legalization). This meshes with the Millennial desire to align with brands that reflect their own values, a shift that gives brands the space to successfully take political stands.

But what about companies like Facebook, AT&T, Google, and Microsoft, who remain sponsors? Google is the event’s official livestream producer, and though Microsoft isn’t contributing any money, they are providing technical services and products. AT&T is the “Official Provider of Communications, Video, and Technology.” Presumably, all of these corporations will be providing funding or support to the Democratic Nation Convention as well, meaning they are taking on a strategy of apparent neutrality.

Indeed, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s public attacks on the Trump campaign in the past, Facebook has said that its involvement is a matter of civic duty, suggesting that perhaps these companies can be thought of as representative of a cultural corrective, an emphasis on dialogue that feels nearly radical in a political moment characterized by deep partisanship and seemingly unbridgeable ideological divides.

Photo credit: Donald Trump, Shutterstock; AT&T, Simon Dumenco

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