Why Brands Can't Stay Silent about Politics in 2018

Trust. I think it’s safe to say no word has more power, nuance, or meaning in 2018 than trust. In the age of fake news, much of the world has lost faith in traditional beacons of trust like government, media, and even one another.

Earlier this year, communications firm Edelman, published their annual Trust Barometer, a report that measures the state of trust at a global scale. In 2018, Edelman revealed a distressing loss of trust around the world. Trust among the informed public in the U.S. imploded, plunging 33%, making it now the lowest of the 28 markets surveyed, below Russia and South Africa, the previous bottom spots.

The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 47% among the informed public. It’s not just the government experiencing this loss of trust either. Media has become the least trusted institution globally, with 63% of the 33,000 respondents saying they no longer knew how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods.

The world is experiencing a crisis of doubt and there is no clear sign of a recovery anytime soon. But as with all challenges, there is opportunity hidden within.

At this year’s SXSW Interactive, trust, privacy, and public policies were key themes present throughout the festival. Our own Jim Rudden described this year’s SXSW as “a meeting of the minds” from technology to government. Spredfast CEO, Rod Favaron, presented a SXSW session this year looking at the role and responsibility of the social media ecosystem in building a safer digital experience.

During the festival, I had the pleasure of attending a session from Latia Curry, Principal at Rally, an issue-driven communications firm, titled “Why Engaging with Politics is Critical for Brands.”

Curry began her presentation the way all good presenters do: with a shot of data straight to the brain. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 83% of millennials want companies to be actively invested in solving social problem, and 67% said they bought from a brand for the first time due to their stance on an issue. If that wasn’t enough, 65% said they would not buy from brands who stay silent.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 65% of millennials said they would not buy from brands who stay silent on social issues.

 

Despite decades of silence, today’s politically charged climate is forcing brands to engage with issues and take a stand—or risk having their politics defined for them. There is a right way, and a wrong way.

Curry outlined what she calls the Brand Advocacy Map. The map categorizes and grades the actions of brands on a scale of issue fluency. It’s not simply enough to just “say” something, brands need to understand “why they’re doing what they’re doing." The map lays out 4 examples of brands and where they stand on the scale between being “Issue Fluent,” “Standing for Something,” “Making Changes,” and “Tone Deafness.”

On this scale, Curry placed four brands that define each segment, with explanations as to why. We'll leave the bad actors anonymous for their protection, though we're certain you can think of examples:

The Patagonia Zone (Issue Fluent and Making Changes)

In December 2017, President Donald Trump opened up the national park land of Bear Ears for commercial mining. Patagonia immediately took action, plastering their homepage with the message “The President Stole Your Land” and issuing a lawsuit to block the mining. This zone is reserved for brands who know what they stand for and when they take action, it’s precise, intentional, and on message.

Lyft Zone (Issue Fluent and Stand For Something)

In January of this year, President Donald Trump issued an immigration ban spurring heated debate from both sides of the argument. In response, Lyft donated $1m to the ACLU to help fight what they viewed as “antithetical to both Lyft's and the nation's core values.” This zone is for brands that are fluent on the issues of the day and want to take a stand, but aren’t quite ready to make tangible changes themselves.

The Almost-There Zone (Tone Deaf and Making Changes)

Brands might find themselves in this zone if they're tone-deaf to what is actually going on but truly want to make a change, and take the action to do so.

The Not-Quite Zone (Stand for Something and Tone Deaf)

This zone may the roughest of the bunch and is reserved for brands who want to take a stand on a issue, but fail to understand the issue, convey the right message, or haven’t committed to what that message might be.

To help brands understand where they stand on addressing social issues, Curry also shared what she calls “The Engagement Ladder.”

The Engagement Ladder

  • Level 1 - Testing the Waters In level one of the engagement ladder, a brand takes a single action that lets the world know they have a point of view.
  • Level 2 - Owning the Position In level 2, brands take multiple actions toward what they believe and people begin to see a trend and what this brand is about. This is great PR but is still missing that next step to making change.
  • Level 3 - Walking the Walk In level 3, brands communicate their beliefs so effectively you can predict their point of view on issues before they even say something.
  • Brand Purgatory This is where “reactive” brands go to die. Brands caught off guard on issues and are forced to react, often times failing to communicate their beliefs correctly. If you don’t go out and state your position, people will state it for you.

The key takeaway from Curry’s session is that in 2018 and beyond, silence is not an option. Brands can no longer hide on the sidelines hoping to cash in without offending their audience.

This is the time to stand for what you believe in. Be authentic and consistent in what you believe and make sure your customer base knows. Transparency, authenticity, and consistency are the building blocks of trust, and the world needs that now more than ever.

Building trust is a guiding principle we follow at Spredfast and it’s something we encourage, and enable, our customers to do. Curry’s “Brand Advocacy Map” and “Engagement Ladder” are great examples of what brands can learn from their peers and what steps they need to take build trust, show value, and genuinely connect with their audience.

 

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Alex Murray is Brand Communications Manager at Spredfast, responsible for executive branding and media relations. An Austin native at heart, you can find him obsessing over the latest Nintendo games, binging the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or tearing it up at a punk show.