Ever since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in November, there’s been a giant elephant in the room—not just the symbolic one that represents Republicans’ control of the House and the Senate but a metaphorical one that indicates the uncertainty marketers feel in terms of how they should engage with consumers.
Over the past few months, brands have been applauded and chastised for their perceived stances on Trump. While some companies have declared their political views willingly (see Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz’s open letter in response to Trump’s original executive order on immigration), others were dragged into the conversation by the president himself. L.L. Bean, for instance, was endorsed by Trump in a tweet in which he thanked its board of directors member Linda Bean for supporting him, leading some consumers to threaten to boycott the outdoor gear and apparel brand. Even companies that have remained silent have come under fire, like Oracle. As BuzzFeed reports, employees called out the tech giant for not speaking out against the aforementioned executive order on immigration.
But this political tension isn’t the only issue brands face today; there’s also the issue of brand trust. According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, just over half (53%) of the general population trust businesses. Even fewer (49%) consider CEOs very or extremely credible.
So, how are marketers supposed to engage consumers in this new reality? At last week’s 2017 Brand Finance Global Forum in New York, Peter Horst, former marketing leader for The Hershey Company and Capital One, shared his rules for marketing in “the Trump era,” as well as the opportunities brands now face.
Brands face more risk from more sources
Whether it’s a Trump tweet, an executive statement, or just a lack of action, there are ample opportunities for brands to face consumer scrutiny.
“[There’s] more risk coming from more places that [brands] need to deal with,” Horst said.
Indeed, consumers are constantly judging brands for what they do and do not do, he noted. And when points of contention arise, he added, consumers are more likely to pronounce a brand guilty than defend its innocence, especially without proper evidence.
Take Uber, for instance. As BuzzFeed and Vox Media’s Curbed summarize, the ridesharing company faced backlash for tweeting that it was suspending surge pricing shortly after a taxi strike was held at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport as part of the protest against Trump’s executive order on immigration. Many consumers interpreted this tweet as an attempt to capitalize on the strike, and, as a result, the hashtag #DeleteUber began trending. For some of those who oppose Trump, it also didn’t help that Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was part of the president’s economic advisory group along with other technology leaders, including Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk and IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty. However, shortly after the strike, Kalanick left the group, citing that his participation was “misinterpreted” as an endorsement of Trump and his policies—according to a memo published in Forbes.
“Consumers assume the worst in the absence of knowledge,” Horst said.
2) Consumers and companies are becoming more polarized
Some consumers may blame Trump for the divided state of the country; however, Horst said that his presidency has shone a light on issues that were already brewing before his rise to power, like a greater divide in economic status or higher education opportunities. More consumers are on polar sides of these spectrums, he said, and the segment of consumers who fall somewhere in the middle is shrinking—making it more difficult for brands to market to a mass audience.
As a result, consumers expect companies to pick a side. According to the 2016 report “Business and Politics: Do They Mix?” by Global Strategy Group, 84% of the Americans surveyed say corporations have a responsibility to drive change on important issues, falling just 5% behind the president (89%). Seventy-nine percent also say that corporations can still succeed while taking a stance on key issues, and 72% say it can actually help a company’s bottom line.
But choosing a side is a double-edge sword. Brands that express their views run high risk of polarization while brands that avoid stating their opinions run the risk of being less relevant, Horst explained. As for those hoping to fall somewhere in the middle, Horst said that this is becoming less feasible.
“I’m just not sure there’s any such thing,” he said.
And if consumers don’t agree with a brand’s stance, they’ll just take their business elsewhere. Brands give consumers who feel powerless the opportunity to drive change with their dollars, Horst said, such as by boycotting a retailer or deleting an app.
“There’s an immediate gratification from that that feels sort of satisfying in that moment,” he said.
3) Brand reputation is becoming more relatable to brand health
Companies’ corporate reputations are more readily impacting their brand health, Horst said, such as their relationship with their customers or consumer brand choice. As a result, Horst said that marketers need to be more mindful of the relationship between the two.
Keeping this in mind, here are Horst’s four pieces of advice for maintaining a more resilient brand.
- Build your foundation: Instead of just jumping on the next bandwagon, brands need to have a clear sense of their values and purpose, Horst said, and then assess which issues are relevant to them. He also said that it’s important for the brand’s leadership to be on board so that there’s a unified front.
“You want to make sure that when things get tough everyone is on the same page and running in the same direction,” he said.
- Make sure that brand reality matches brand values: When assessing their brands’ values, marketers need to do what Horst calls an “honest audit.” They should review their track record, he said, and see if they have a history of supporting the issues they claim to stand behind. Also, marketers should take inventory of their brands’ weaknesses, he added, and hire associates who will help them stay honest about them.
- Be proactively transparent. Horst advised marketers to understand their customers’ political and social orientations. They then need to identify their brand loyalists and influencers, he added, and equip them with talking points. This will not only help the brand engage in a two-way dialogue, he noted, but it will also help them identify the people who will stick up for the brand when the going gets tough.
“Who is your Van Jones [or] who is your Kellyanne Conway, so to speak?” he said.
- React quickly and bravely: If a brand crisis does occur, marketers shouldn’t panic. Instead, they need to respond to the issue in a matter of hours (not days), Horst said, and address the problem in the same channel that it occurred. So, if there’s a negative consumer conversation on Twitter, marketers should address the issue on Twitter, not a press release, he explained. He also said that marketers should keep their responses simple and ensure that they don’t waver on their claims.
While this list of rules may seem daunting for some, Horst said that marketing during the Trump era also presents opportunities. It allows brands to clarify their place in the world, he said, and put their values on clear display. It also gives them the opportunity to be more authentic, he added, and build more powerful relationships with their customers. And, as Horst put it, “In whatever era, in whatever reality, that’s really what we’re here to do.”