Branding in the Age of Divisiveness

by | Jan 13, 2021

Recent events may usher in a new era of consumer mindfulness, one in which companies’ political donations are heavily scrutinized.  

Today, a company’s brand is comprised of more than the products it sells. I think of Nike and it conjures up athletic shoes and gear.

But I also remember decades-old reports of sweat-shop labor at its factories in Indonesia, as well as questionable practices at its distance-running training program. And I consider its support for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem to protest systemic racial inequality in the United States.

Do I have a pair of Nike running shoes? I do. But if you asked me who Nike supported with its political donations, I’d have no idea.

That may be changing.

In the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by armed supporters of President Trump, a parade of companies has withdrawn their financial support of the lawmakers who continued to contest the presidential election, despite a lack of evidence to support their claims. AT&T, Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shield, American Express, Comcast and others announced they would be halting political donations to the eight Republican senators and 139 Republican House members who voted against certifying President-Elect Joe Biden’s win.

Hallmark Cards even said that its political action committee wanted its donations back from Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas — both of whom voted against certification.

Consumers, more than ever, are paying attention.

In a 2019 survey from the communications agency Markstein and Certus Insights, a public opinion firm, 70% of those surveyed said they wanted to know how brands are addressing social and environmental issues and 46% pay close attention to a brand’s social responsibility efforts when they buy its products.

But consumers were more divided when it came to getting involved in politics: 54% agreed that “a company’s social responsibility goes too far when (it) gets involved in partisan politics.”

Reversing course may end up paying some dividends.

This week, Twitter user @ArtistLike posted: “I was just about to cancel @Xfinity @comcast @comcastcares cable because it’s expensive and I watch streaming services a lot more nowadays — but I decided this AM to keep paying for cable for now to thank Comcast for defunding terrorist Republican officials.”

The newsletter Popular Information reported that Comcast/NBC Universal had donated $44,500 to four of the eight Republican senators in the 2020 election cycle.

Some companies — Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Boston Scientific, Hilton and more — are opting to halt all of their PAC contributions pending review. It remains to be seen just how knee-jerk these reactions might be: Will it be business as usual once the political dust settles? Or is this truly the beginning of a new curve?

There is precedent, a small group of companies, including IBM, that have policies prohibiting political donations — though IBM’s employees can still donate individually and the company has a robust lobbying presence.

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is also the creator of the Showtime series “Billions,” argues that that might be a model for companies moving forward (especially as consumers, led by cause-driven Millennials, pay more attention to the political tentpoles of the brands they support).

“At this moment in history, when many companies say they want to step up to address big public challenges even ahead of government leaders,” Sorkin writes, “what better opportunity to create real credibility and demonstrate leadership? This time, corporate America can make a powerful statement not with money, but without it.”

Photo credit: Pexels

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