Should CMOs be political? Lessons from Nike, Delta, Burger King and others

Wading into controversial topics can be be risky for brands. Here’s how CMOs and marketing leaders can make sense of their stances.

Switzerland is known for its beautiful hills, delicious chocolate and world-class banking system. But 80 years ago, they were also known for their notorious neutrality. In both World War I and World War II, Switzerland refused to join any side. They weren’t naive. They built an impressive military and moved into defensive positions. However, they never engaged in war. They maintain friendly relationships with all European nations throughout both conflicts.

Switzerland gives marketing executives a few lessons on how to handle difficult situations. Executives are confronted with a need to respond to current affairs, and often to tricky political events. CMOs and marketing leaders need to make sense of their stances.

It’s not just about politics. There are plenty of conversations today about values, commitment to popular causes such as climate change and direct action in response to government actions. Marketing leaders constantly tell me how difficult it can be to tackle these decisions. In this post, I want to share a few lessons on how marketing leaders and CMOs can handle these situations.

Remember, you always have a choice

Let’s start the conversation by reminding yourself that you always have a choice. Nike may choose to release ads supporting Black Lives Matter, but it doesn’t mean every company should necessarily follow their lead. Marketing teams can feel a suffocating desire to respond to the events around them, but sometimes, the right answer is to be silent.

The first responsibility of a business is to its shareholders and customers — marketing is meant to support the business. In some cases, companies can help the business by taking clear stances, but that’s not always the case. Unlike individuals, it’s not just a matter of what is ethically right or aligned to your individual beliefs. It’s a question of what is right for the business. 

The fundamentals of good marketing haven’t changed much in recent times. Marketing is still built on strong brands, clear messaging and tangible value for customers. Choosing to layer on values that align with certain causes or initiatives is an extra choice that not every company has to make.

For brands, the biggest risk isn’t staying on the sidelines; it’s hypocrisy. Consumers can tell when a brand is being honest. I am reminded of pride parades that corporate brands have completely taken over. At this point, it feels like a checklist item for them. Consumers notice these actions.

Wading into controversial topics can be tricky and unpredictable. Marketing leaders must act like doctors, remembering their first rule is to “do no harm.” Even large companies like Pepsi can make serious blunders — such as the Kendall Jenner campaign that was meant to promote a message of inclusion but created a completely different response. 

In those moments where you feel the pressure to respond, remember that you have a choice. 

Be careful of outliers

Outliers are always louder than the average. Most U.S. consumers identify as “moderate.” However, political campaigns can make it seem like the country is divided into opposites. Choosing a side may be completely unnecessary, depending on the makeup of your customer base.

While it is true that some consumers will go out of their way to support brands that also align with their beliefs, every company needs to check if this assumption applies to them. Burger King has made public statements in their ads, such as the “Equal Buns” campaign, but it’s hard to imagine that politics is what consumers expect from a fast food company.

Some argue for the benefits of polarizing statements. It is better to have a small group of passionate customers than a large group of ambivalents. The evidence for this idea is contradictory. Some studies will show increased support for brands that have made public statements, while others show the opposite. 

Delta lobbied against the voting restrictions in Georgia in a clear statement of support, but how many people will be choosing or avoiding Delta because of their actions? It’s hard to know. 

The same can be said for employees. Companies like Basecamp and Coinbase have made news after banning controversial conversations. You can find reports of people quitting in response but also those who support the separation of work and personal beliefs. On the other hand, Netflix has made it clear they support free speech, and if their employees don’t like their content choices, they are free to find another job.

We can criticize or laud individual companies based on our own beliefs, but every company has to make choices based on their unique makeup of customers and employees. When I work with companies on these issues, I ask what they think would be best for the business. That is the starting point for tackling thorny issues.

What’s best for the business?

The idea that businesses are a force for good isn’t new. Peter Drucker talked about the role organizations played in society 50 years ago, and the debate continues to this day. I contend that businesses first have a responsibility to their customers and shareholders. As a business becomes more successful, it can explore offering support to their local communities — whatever that means for the business.

Brands should approach making statements with a bias toward the evidence.

First, survey your customers to determine their level of interest in specific beliefs. You may discover that you serve young consumers who tend to be politically active. These customers could be perfect candidates for a more outspoken brand.

I am skeptical that consumers are consciously evaluating every brand to see if it aligns with their beliefs. I don’t think most consumers buying laundry detergent think, “I wonder if P&G is doing any work against racism?” They simply buy the best detergent for them and move on. Every brand needs to understand their own customers before making assumptions. 

Second, you should explore what statements to make. It can be tempting to get into the “statement business” and start announcing your beliefs on everything. These actions have to support the core business of marketing. You need to choose carefully where to make a statement and where you might stay quiet. There are far too many issues in the world for any company to get involved.

Third, keep your focus on the fundamentals. CMOs have the shortest tenure on the Fortune 500 and not because they aren’t outspoken enough. Marketing needs to make a solid case for its impact on revenue and the business. Communicating beliefs is a “nice to have” once the fundamentals are handled.

What are your beliefs?

It can be unthinkable to imagine a country staying neutral during World War II but Switzerland proved otherwise. Brands need to think through their beliefs and what they care about. They may realize that they do not need to make political statements. It’s not important to their customers or their business. 

Like other things in life, peer pressure can seem daunting. Every brand chooses sides, and that’s what modern marketing is about. It’s more important to stand by your beliefs regardless of what your peers are doing. The best brands make choices that make sense for them and not others. 

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About The Author

Ruben Ugarte is the global expert in Decisions, Strategy, and Data and author of the Data Mirage and Bulletproof Decisions. He helps executives at the most innovative medium and large enterprises find their hidden treasures and use them to dramatically boost performance, increase profitability, and make their teams world-class. He has done this across five continents and in three languages. His ideas have helped hundreds of thousands of people make better decisions.