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How to Maintain Brand Authenticity in Today's Politically Polarized Climate

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Bart Hubbuch. Kathy Griffin. Reza Aslan.

What do those three people have in common? They've all faced professional retribution after posting politically charged tweets aimed at President Donald Trump.

Hubbuch was fired by the New York Post, CNN fired Griffin, and the same network canceled Aslan's show, "Believer."

Aslan, the latest to suffer the consequences, responded to the show's cancellation in a statement, saying, in part, "in these politically charged times, the tenor of our nation's discourse has become complicated, and I recognize that CNN needs to protect its brand."

And that's just it: Spurred by Trump-related controversy, companies are essentially being asked to pick a side.


In addition to the New York Post and CNN, several retail companies—ranging from Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus to Burlington—have dropped clothing and accessories by Ivanka Trump (in line with the social media boycott #GrabYourWallet).

Macy's more recently faced that decision, after more than 63,000 people signed a petition urging the retail giant to drop Ivanka Trump's clothing line.

Where do you stand?

American consumers want to know where their beloved brands stand. So, to pick a side or not to pick a side? That is the question plaguing many brands in today's politically polarized environment.

Pick a side, and you risk potentially losing a wide customer base that holds opposing views. Don't pick a side, and you may be viewed as inauthentic.

But brand authenticity presents a valuable opportunity for companies, because nearly nine out of 10 consumers say they are willing to take action to reward a brand for its authenticity, according to a 2016 study by Cohn & Wolfe.

The study found that 52% of consumers would recommend the brand to others, 49% would pledge loyalty to the brand, and 20% would invest in a brand that proves its authenticity.

So, whether you decide to make your political stance known or not, here are a few ways to maintain brand authenticity at a time of political controversy.

1. Focus on what—not who—you support

To maintain brand authenticity without getting pulled into today's heated political debates, begin by staying true to your company's core values. Rather than focusing on whom you support, focus on what you support.

Values serve as a company's moral compass. Staying true to those values, rather than a political figure or party, keeps you from neglecting consumers (and employees) with opposing views. After all, it's much easier—and much less exclusive—to attribute your company's stance on diversity, for instance, to a longstanding value than a political preference.

By doing so, you maintain brand authenticity without necessarily showing support for one political party over another. And considering that companies are made up of people from various backgrounds with differing views, it's important to remain neutral as an organization.

In the end, how authentic your brand appears to consumers relies on how true you are to the values your company was built on—not your political stance. So, communicate and demonstrate those values with employees and customers on a regular basis.

How to be authentic: Leadership needs to be the most outspoken, and it should release official statements highlighting how their organization and company culture stay true to its values. The focus of statements needs to be on what they support—integrity, freedom, diversity—not who or what political party they side with.

A great example comes from the NFL. After President Trump commented on players' protesting during the national anthem, team owners responded through official statements.

The president and CEO of the Denver Broncos, Joe Ellis, focused his statement on expressing gratitude and respect for his players and the organization. He did not specifically name Trump or mention who should do what. He merely reiterated the organization's continued support for their players and their dedication to "work together to advocate for values of respect, diversity and inclusion."

2. Deliver on your promises

Authenticity and honesty go hand in hand. Especially In the current political landscape, keeping your word and delivering on your promises lets consumers know they can count on you.

In fact, the Cohn & Wolfe study found that in defining authenticity, 70% of consumers prioritize "delivering on promises" over more lofty measures, such as social responsibility (57%) and environmental responsibility (55%).

Unfortunately, a 2015 study by Gallup found that companies deliver on their brand promises only half of the time. The highest-performing companies in Gallup's database, however, deliver on their brand promise 75% of the time.

How to be authentic: To successfully deliver on your brand promise, make sure you have a clear understanding of your ideal customer's needs. And the best way to get in their heads is to ask them.

Regularly conduct surveys with your customers. For example, follow up with them after they purchase your product or service or host surveys on social media platforms.

To get the most out of their feedback, ask the right questions about how the organization can improve the customer experience and your products or services.

If you struggle to get people to share their input, try boosting customer engagement by offering discounts on future purchases or sending them a gift.

From there, make sure your company's mission or vision align with those customer needs, and then let your audience know that it does. When they make a purchase, for example, send them a message stating your mission, and thank them for playing a part in it. Doing so will show them that they're contributing and helping your company make a difference.

Having a clearly defined mission and vision—and ensuring that they inform everything you do as a company—is the key to delivering on your promise to consumers.

3. Embrace transparency

The Cohn & Wolfe study found that brand authenticity consists of three primary drivers: reliability, respect, and realness (the 3R's of authenticity). Realness is what brands tend to struggle with most.

Essentially, consumers want to know the people, culture, and values behind a brand's product or service. And the best way to let consumers in and boost brand authenticity is to maintain a sense of transparency.

How to be authentic: Give consumers a peek behind the curtain, whether it's by giving them a behind-the-scenes look at how a product is made or simply by sharing photos of your company's latest outing. After all, people connect best with other people, not a product. And a brand is only as good as the people behind it.

In addition, create content related to your company culture and distribute it to your social media followers. The goal is simple: Showcase how your employees live and breathe by your values, and highlight how that defines your brand.

For example, Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear company, has its brand ambassadors contribute to the journal section of its website. They show how employees get involved in helping impoverished communities. As a result, customers see the organization's values in action and understand how the culture aligns with the company's mission.

* * *

So, whether you opt to make your political stance known or you want to avoid taking sides altogether, aim to stay true to what your brand was built on: your mission, vision, and values. Brand authenticity will follow.


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Brandon Lewis is president and CEO of Win More Patients. Its mission is to help physicians raise their status as medical experts by achieving national recognition.

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  • by Tom Smith Thu Jan 18, 2018 via web

    @Brandon, great article. A lot of companies don't understand the importance of values. They're even more important for employees than they are customers. If there's a lack of alignment with the vision, mission, and values of your organization that's going to lead to a lot of confusion and misinformation among employees who are interacting with your customers. Consistency builds trust. Inconsistency leads to confusion and distrust.

  • by Nick Chehreh Thu Jan 18, 2018 via web

    Excellent article!

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