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Why Companies Became Political | Bud Light

Why Companies Get Involved in Politics & How Leaders Can Navigate It

As much as I hate to admit it, branding& corporate culture have changed and politics is the reason.
Before 2016, as a brand the most extreme stance you would be expected to take was sustainability. At the very most, gay rights – and taking that one basically meant slapping a cute rainbow version of your logo on your social channels. Now, before someone comes here and reads too much into my words: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fighting for the environment or standing up for LGBTQ.

If that’s your truth as a brand, more power to you… Especially if you do something concrete about it. I hate to admit that branding has changed because, for the longest time, part of my identity was the almost masonic principle of “never talk about politics of religion,” which used to be the case for most brands.

And yet, starting 2016 the world changed.
It wasn’t a moment as pivotal as the Fall of the Wall or 9/11, but it was an undeniable shift. A shift towards ideology if we see it negatively, or one towards social responsibility if we are feeling optimist.

From my perspective, it was actually a sight to behold, because that year marked the day where the words of one of my intellectual mentors, Edward Bernays, sounded more true than ever: “The social approval of the public is essential to any large undertaking,” and “the public opinion is the unacknowledged partner in all broad efforts.”

And what are companies, especially the biggest ones or aspiring such, if not large undertakings and broad efforts?

You see, much like the people complaining about AI today don’t stand much of a chance at stopping it, my own personal views on political abstention didn’t last when, in 2016, the entire world of branding went from “stay in your lane” to “pick an enemy and go fight it.”

But… what happened in 2016, you ask?
Well, the question isn’t what but rather who.

Why Companies Became Political | Trump 2016

Year Of The Tycoon

Ironically, this might sound like something straight out of the Chinese calendar, but it is actually quite the opposite.
In 2016, Donald Trump became the president of the United States, flipping the script, the table and the world all at the same time.

My history of society teacher in university had a saying: “The business of business is business,” a clever wordplay to say that money concerns itself with money and nothing else. I used to love it, but it was eventually disproven. When Trump got elected, the business of business became the public opinion. In the mental match between her and Bernays, the latter won by knockout.

Trump’s inflammatory and often derogatory rhetoric took full advantage of some people’s dissatisfaction with our culture, ever-more concerned with catering to the feelings of people across all minority groups (before you come at me, I am a minority too). The flip side of that coin is a push towards inclusivity, respect, and complete freedom of expression of the self.

The dialectic nature of this conflict caused racism to skyrocket. People began hating each other over sexuality, over skin color, over legal statuses. To this day Twitter, where I spent quite some time, has become increasingly uncomfortable content-wise.

As it happened, America went from being a country in which conservatives and democrats would be friendly neighbors who would challenge each other at who had the biggest barbecue on Sundays, to being a broken society where politics drove people apart. Ultimately, this a depressing playbook I saw the results of in Venezuela… and one the entire world is engaging in, for it turns out that algorithms pick up on the brain’s negativity bias, and starts showing you more negativity as soon as you interact with any of it.

So America fell for it, and the world followed suit.
But what does it have to do with branding, you ask?

Well, everything. Because when people don’t feel like their politicians are accountable, they’ll turn to their favorite actors – DiCaprio has been a loud activist for decades now – and if that fails or isn’t perceived as enough… they’ll turn to companies.

The Price Of NOT Getting Involved

If once upon a time it would’ve been business as usual, starting 2016 things changed.

I wasn’t building brands or consulting companies on culture back then, but the people who were? They had to face a dramatic challenge, and help their clients step into the flaming territory of policies, identity politics, immigration, and any other pressing social issue. And to be honest, it was often an opportunity: A study by Unilever showed that the purpose-driven brands in their portfolio grew 69% faster and drove 75% of the company’s growth. 

But the dark side is there, and it is two-fold:

  • If you stay out of politics and social issues and your company is quite visible in the public eye, you’ll get shunned and criticize. Because, as Rise Against said in the song Collapse Post-Amerika, “neutrality means that you don’t really care, cause the struggle goes on even when you’re not there.”
  • If you take political or ideological stances but pick the wrong ones, either because you’re a hypocrite or because you pick one that makes your core audience angry, you’ll get publicly shamed and you’ll start tanking. And if you don’t believe me, ask Bud Light.

So, if both options entail a significant risk… what are you supposed to do?

Glad you asked.

Aligning The Truth

When a tanker aircraft has to refuel a fighter jet mid-flight, the jet has to approach the tanker, slow down to match its speed, then align nozzles as they both dart through the sky. It’s a matter of mutual synchronisation and precision work – and outstanding effort that only trained professionals make appear effortless.

In this metaphor, your company is the fighter jet and your audience is the tanker plane.

We, the Strategists, are the skilled operators making the operation possible. The ones helping you align what you stand for with what your audience believes in, an act we carry out by workshopping you until we find what your company is truly about and by studying your customers and their influencers, from magazines to newspapers to celebrities.  With that information we then decide which cause to align with, and suggest concrete measures you can take to support them.

A perfect example is a company I worked at a couple years ago, an IT provider who refused to work with defense companies. Why? Because their software was to be used only for the betterment of businesses and their processes, rather than to make the military apparatus run quicker and smoother into the next possible conflict.

And you see, I do work with defense players. Not only that, but one of my co-founders was a paratrooper in Italian army. One of my best friends is USAF. I myself am getting certified by a research institute that belongs to the Intelligence community… but that has nothing to do with that IT company, nor was there a conflict of interest – my job is to find the best path for clients, even if their identities don’t fully align with mine… unless they break a boundary, of course, and I have plenty of those when selecting who I work with. 

So, what were the results?
That IT provider ended up gaining traction not in defense, but in public sector tenders.
They worked with Departments of Justice and state governments.
All because rejecting a direction meant they could embrace a different one.

Why Companies Became Political | Leaders

Brands Became Political: What Should You Do?

I still stand by one principle: If your company doesn’t really stand for any cause, you shouldn’t force it and should rather opt for neutrality.
If you stand for many causes, pick the ones that better align with your audience.

And if you stand for one cause and your audience shares it, embrace it boldly. You’ll find out very soon that corporate identities, much like their individual counterparts, are about the truth: You can’t walk around life pretending to be someone you’re not. In that same way, you can’t have a company that is or becomes something that its leadership isn’t, otherwise they won’t be able to represent it. Even worse, they won’t be able to be honest with their audience – both employees and customers – and once that happens, it’s over for you.

Business is about trust.
And there’s never been trust without honesty.

So, if you’re a leader, yesterday the best time to start aligning your company to your truth, your founders’ truth, or the Management’s truth.
The second best time is today, because here’s the thing: If you don’t do it, your business will grow, and it will face some success. But once it crosses a certain line, you’ll notice that the structure begins to crack… because you neglected the foundations:

Because your values weren’t clear.
Or maybe they were, but you never lived them, never used them as a filter for who to hire or who to work with.

Because your vision didn’t exist.
Or maybe it did, but you treated it as a statement in the “about” page of your website, instead of using it to actually filter out short-term decisions in favor of what you truly want to achieve.

Because you weren’t aligned with the truth.
For if you had been, you wouldn’t have hired the wrong team members just because their resume was great and you closed an eye on their personality.

Leadership and branding are about matching.
In today’s politicized environment, people buy from those they like, align with and trust.

So the key to leading employees and customers towards a better world is to actually have a destination you’re taking the to, and to embrace your truth – openly and powerfully – in order to let that be the ultimate factor in attracting the right people to you, and repelling the wrong ones.

So yes, brands did become political.
The public opinion will look up to your company.
Even your employees will expect you to take stances.

Whether you make the right decision or the wrong one, however, is not on them: It depends on the work you do today to magnetize the right people to you. So that, when push comes to shove and you have to take a stance, you take one you’re truly about without making anyone feel betrayed just because you weren’t open at the start of that working relationship.

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