Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Post-election Marketing: Why Politics and Business Don't Mix

In the days following the election, there have been a number of anti-Obama business owners that have been in the press for essentially thrown miniature temper tantrums over the results of the election. A collection of these guys, including the CEO of Papa John's Pizza, a guy that owns a bunch of Applebee's franchises in the New York area and another guy that runs a bunch of Denny's franchises in Florida, have come used the election results as a justification for 'applying a surcharge for Obama-care' to 'cutting employee hours so that they aren't eligible for health care'. There are also reports of some businesses firing employees.

If we were doing a new round of high school yearbooks right now, it's not hard to imagine these guys as being candidates for the 'most likely to through their golf clubs in the lake after a bad shot'.

If there is one lesson to take away from stories like the recent Chick-fil-A meets gay marriage blow-up, it's that bringing your politics to work has the potential to cause a PR storm. It probably goes without saying, but customers are partners in your business. While we might want to believe that everyone thinks like we do or that we are enlightened by some higher truth, they don't. Evangelism can be divisive. Divisive statements and practices will alienate parts of your base and potentially drive them to action.

The potential negative energy is even worse when you operate a consumer-facing business. When consumers participate in your business, they have a much more significant vote. So while Robert Murray, the CEO for Murray Energy, can throw his post-election tantrum by holding a prayer meeting with his employees and then firing 156 of them, consumers don't really have an outlet for outrage. But when businesses like Papa Johns, Applebee's and Denny's are involved, they make their voices heard. The result is the PR walk-of-shame.
In some ways, rules of business are simple. It's kind of like a holiday dinner -- there are certain conversation topics that you try to avoid. Politics, sex and religion are all likely to get you into hot water. But in some ways, it's broader than that. Advocacy and evangelism have the potential to create backlash, particularly in our modern media environment that finds energy (links, clicks, and views) from conflict and controversy.

Disconnected Arrogance and the Moral Imperative
It's one thing to operate a business based on moral principles, but when your business takes a public stand, you need to consider it's relationship to your brand and the impact on your broader business. For example, when Patagonia aligns with environmental projects, that's also aligned with their brand. Gay marriage probably has little to do with chicken sandwiches.

Some people might claim that Chick-fil-A found it's way into a controversy as a backlash to the CEO was simply following his moral priniciples, but if Chick-fil-A had just operated quietly on it's principles, it probably wouldn't have found itself in the firestorm. Contrast Chick-fil-A with In-N-Out. In-N-Out prints Bible verses on their cups and wrappers, but just the number notations, not even the text. Controversy score: Chick-fil-A=1, In-N-Out=0.

The reality is that these controversies don't typically result from businesses operating on principles, they tend to be sparked by the arrogant behavior of an individual. Principled businesses express their principles through their operation and their brand. They communicate their values through their ongoing operations. In that same way, successful principled businesses harmonize with their customers and their partner community. During ongoing operations, the business connects with some constituents and they alienate others. These controversies tend to be sharp turns or tangents.

Is there a take-away here? The only suggestion that I have is a repetition of something that I've said a number of times in the past.
The man with the microphone must maintain a modicum of taste at all times.
When you have the microphone, you need to be conscientious of the potential impact of every sound you make. 

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