Minimise Reputation Risk; Avoid Mixing Business and Politics

5 Marketing Missteps – Avoid Mixing Business and Politics

As marketers we’re always looking for innovative ways to expand the brands reputation and image, but be careful because creativity can go too far. In today’s politically divisive environment, any attempt to align a company with one particular viewpoint inevitably alienates the other side. Even referencing what marketing designers perceive as unifying causes related to basic human rights is likely to backfire because it will appear the company is trying to capitalise financially on these issues.

‘Any publicity is good publicity’ doesn’t necessarily apply to the internet, where negative attention will send potential customers looking for a company with a better image. People need to find you online, but they need to find you for the right reasons, not for a publicity gaffe that turned into the latest viral story.  Building a professional image that inspires confidence in the brand isnt always easy but promoting social responsibility through donations and charity work can be an important part of this, but mixing politics or any complex social issue with marketing is a recipe for disaster.


What not to do and who has got it wrong?

In advertising, there’s a fine line between what works and what doesn’t and even professional marketers can’t always tell the difference. Here are some of the latest missteps that turned into a PR nightmare:

  • Pepsi – A recent commercial starring white actress/model Kendall Jenner in a scene reminiscent of recent political protests (especially some Black Lives Matter protests) sparked immediate controversy. It was hailed as an example of cultural appropriation and insensitive handling of the serious issues protests call attention to. The rollout stopped almost immediately, but after only two days on YouTube the video had attracted 1.3 million views.
  • Starbucks – A 2015 campaign asked baristas to write ‘Race Together’ on customers’ coffee cups as an invitation to open a dialogue on race issues. Unfortunately, the majority of employees chose not to participate, given the awkwardness of generating an in-depth discussion over a five minute customer service interaction. The campaign was withdrawn within a few weeks, but not before it generated negative attention for trivialising the long history of racial injustice in the US.
  • Southern Rail – In 2016, Southern Rail tried to discourage striking workers with a PR campaign headlined ‘Let’s strike back’. The goal was for customers to let unions know how they felt about strikes, complete with a catchy hashtag ‘#SouthernBackOnTrack’. However, customers took this as an invitation to share their complaints against Southern Rail’s regular operation and high-profile politician, Caroline Lucas, joined in accusing Southern Rail of ‘shifting the blame’. In the end, the campaign generated more publicity in support of the union than Southern Rail.
  • Mascara – One cosmetic company, Beautycounter, instigated a campaign to highlight the US’s failure to regulate dangerous chemicals in mascara using the hashtag ‘#100lashes’. The hashtag was also a reference to ‘lashing’, a horrifying form of punishment still used in some parts of the world. Unfortunately, the attempt to combine two issues that were not at all alike fell flat, since it only served to invite an unwelcome comparison between ‘First World Problems’ and people who face real threats.
  • Homebase – In April 2016, one member of the Homebase team added a ‘#RIPPrince’ (musician) hashtag to a generic ‘Happy Friday’ message letting people know the online department was open for business. The message sparked immediate backlash from Tweeters who called it ‘tasteless’, ‘inappropriate’ and an ‘exploitation of (Prince’s) death’. Homebase removed the tweet quickly, but not before screenshots had given it a permanent place on social media. This may not be a political message but using a hashtag of a well loved atist death to jump on a trend was viewed as tateless.

Companies should think carefully when commenting on recent events through social media. Is it in keeping with the brand image? is it consistant with past social media use? Will it offend or alienate your audience? 

There are a lot of questions you should ask yourself before contributing to a sensitive discussion and more often than not the reputation risk is hardly ever worth the reward.

business online reputation management


Posted on 03 July 2017 by Tony McChrystal

Tagged businesses