Brands Should be Humanized, Not Politicized
At a time when brands of all sizes feel compelled to wade into issues that divide our country into red and blue, it’s not easy to create a “mic drop” moment that truly rises above debate. But that’s what Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard did in late 2022 when he gave away his company. No caveats. No stunts. The environmentalist and reluctant capitalist stunned the world by transferring ownership of his outdoor apparel brand, valued at about $3 billion, to a trust and nonprofit that will ensure all proceeds are used to combat climate change.
There’s no argument, no debate, no backlash. Patagonia now has three shareholders: its employees, its customers, and the Earth.
Now, Patagonia hasn’t always been above controversial political statements—remember when the company sued our former president? So how did Patagonia avoid becoming a lightning rod for hate? Simple: It was abundantly clear from the start about who it is and what it stands for—even if that means making really tough decisions, like giving away the whole company. It doesn’t need to call up Simon Sinek to discover its “why.”
Patagonia’s bold move stands in stark contrast to the many companies that take a stand based on the prevailing political mood rather than their own values. Just look at the companies promoting an abortion travel allowance in response to the fall of Roe v. Wade. Dig deeper into Glassdoor reviews and you’ll find that many of the same businesses that are making that offer have little to no parental leave or adoption assistance.
How does supporting Pride Month fit into your brand story—articulated in a way Grandma can understand?
If brands represent the best version of ourselves (which this author still hopes), then isn’t it better to focus on what we have in common versus what separates us? Heineken went there, creating the ad campaign “Worlds Apart, an Experiment” to bring people together and find common ground (over a beer, of course). Try to not cry while viewing.
Consider the issue more deliberately. I like to think of corporate brand leaders as problem-solvers for society that can see farther than the 4- to 8-year life cycle of political brands like Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Trump. Perhaps there are three or four sides to an issue, and organizations can put energy toward creative solutions to improve humanity.
This doesn’t ignore issues; in fact, more brands should get involved. Here are some questions to consider if you plan to have your brand step into the world of politics, especially on what could be divisive issues.
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Does your action contradict other actions? For instance, if you’re adding rainbow colors to your logo for Pride Month but still sponsoring FIFA in Qatar, where being gay is a crime, you’ve got a problem. Plus, how does supporting Pride Month fit into your brand story—articulated in a way Grandma can understand?
Can you identify all sides of an issue and come up with possible solutions instead of just signaling your position like a politician two weeks before Election Day? Run thought experiments and ask questions that consider the five-, 15- and even 50-year horizon. Do the solutions benefit everyone, or are you leaving some behind? If the latter, stay silent and continue to study.
Remaining silent on an issue doesn’t mean you’re complicit with any side; don’t give in to outside social or political pressure. If you need to take some time to work through solutions, say so in a news release and resist the urge to use the hashtag du jour.
Running thought experiments and having a team debate the issues in a rigorous manner will develop a problem-solving culture. It will also clearly communicate to employees and external audiences that you’ve made a deliberate choice and focused on solutions over headlines.
Politicians represent a party; brands represent their employees, customers, investors, and partners. It’s a much more complex and diverse network of people relying on your leadership. True leadership isn’t a politician at a lectern, relying on fundraisers and their own wealth to win them the position. It’s facing the prevailing winds and taking a stand that isn’t necessarily red or blue.