Don’t be Switzerland – how brands should react in divided times

Feb 06, 2017

GDR Innovation Researcher Lamorna Byford on brand activism during divided times.

What do the following companies have in common?

Amazon, Nike, Microsoft, Trip Advisor, Expedia, Netflix, Kickstarter, Lyft, Salesforce, Google, Ford, Apple, Instacart, Slack, Y Combinator and AirBnB.

The answer is that, as well as being North American and having billion-dollar revenues, they have all condemned President Trump’s executive order putting travel restrictions on residents of seven majority Muslim countries (although at the time of writing it has been temporarily lifted thanks to a legal challenge). Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to his staff: “Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do”, referring to Steve Jobs’s Syrian heritage – Syria is the only country that the president has placed an indefinite and total travel ban on.


When I wrote about the rise of brands doing good in our last Global Innovation Report in November, I didn’t know how timely it would be. I didn’t know that Donald Trump would be President and I didn’t know that those who opposed his views would react with such energy. Whilst the left have predictably marched and protested, for so many brands and global corporations from across industries to vocally react to a political act is much more unexpected.

In the past, many brands opted for the Swiss approach of steadfast neutrality. As increasingly ethically-minded consumers continue to vote with their wallets, I would argue that having an opinion is actually far more beneficial.

Last week, British newspaper The Guardian ran the following headline: “Sex doesn’t sell any more, activism does. And don’t the big brands know it.” A scathing headline and one that many consumers will agree with. As I argued in November, for a big multi-national to suddenly declare itself saviour of pandas or rainforests screams insincerity if they’ve never shown any social concern before. Is this latest brand activism simply the same thing?

I don’t think so.

The brands that have criticised the order aren’t boldly standing up for a cause, proactively wading into an area that they know is of importance to their target audience. They are being forced to be politically reactive, a stance that most had always tried to avoid.

When Uber continued to operate during a taxi strike at New York’s JFK airport last week, the hashtag #deleteuber was shared thousands of times across the world. Uber’s Chief Executive Travis Kalanick is also on Trump’s economic advisory group. A day later Uber competitor Lyft, perhaps seeing an opportunity, pledged $1m to the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the organisations who have been central to opposing Trump’s executive orders. Uber later announced that Kalanick had quit the advisory group.

Clearly this isn’t a case study in how best to handle a political issue. In perspective, it is likely to be a blip in Uber’s continuing dominance but the fact that people I know in London deleted the taxi app because of the incident shows the potentially far-reaching implications of such a non-committal approach. The question for brands is, first, what can they do to ensure they don’t alienate their own customers and, second, what should they proactively do to build a stronger affinity.

Decisions about what is and isn’t moral or right aren’t ones that require strategic analysis and will of course rest with the leadership of each brand. What brands can do, however, is to know their audience and what their brand represents to those people. Airbnb, for example, reacted in a way that demonstrated its core values of acceptance, travel and open-mindedness. CEO Brian Chesky tweeted, “Airbnb is providing free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the U.S. Contact me if urgent need for housing”.

A banner from Airbnb’s website

Google recognised the fact that its own employees were amongst those affected, immediately setting up a $4m crisis fund to help employees and others restricted by the policy. “We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the US,” it said in a statement. As a brand that is known for facilitating the easy access of knowledge and driving innovation, this was the reaction that fit best with their principles.

The difficulties that brands are facing when consumers are so politically divided are unlikely to change any time soon. They will have to do what any of us can – stay true to their values and hope that consumers respond with respect, even if they don’t agree.

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