SMPL Q&A: 5 questions on navigating a politically charged landscape with Jason Cieslak

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SMPL Q&A is a blog feature in which we interview experts on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. In this Q&A we speak with Jason Cieslak, president of the Pacific Rim, about if and when brands should take a stand politically. 

What should brands consider before making political statements?

Entering a heated political conversation is a real concern today for brands. It is important for brands to recognize that once they get into the mix on political issues, it is difficult to extract themselves from the media and customer crossfire. Politics is inherently polarizing. And, for some brands, that may be okay. But for the vast majority of businesses, it is no place to be. The default choice should be to stay on the sidelines—especially now, given the heightened social sensitivity. Brands that jump into the fray before an issue is fully vetted may end up alienating customers in the long run.

When the spotlight turns on a brand unexpectedly, how should it handle that attention?

Ignoring or running from an issue is not the answer for any brand in crisis. The real question is how the brand got into the spotlight to begin with. If the brand asked to be part of the dialogue and inserted itself, then it must be prepared with both a response and, if need be, a doubling down on its position. Too often, brands attempt to jump into the fray in an inauthentic way, hoping to capitalize on the public zeitgeist, only to get called out by the public. If you are a brand manager and that’s what you’re trying to achieve, you will be singled out and the brand will pay the price for that mistake. If the brand entered the fray with authentic intent, and has a point of view that aligns with their values, then it’s a safer bet.

What are the risks of not addressing something your customers care deeply about?

It depends on the situation. Does it make sense for my toilet paper brand to be involved in the immigration reform discussion? That seems like a stretch. But if a large agricultural brand that was dependent on legal immigrants helping deliver their goods wanted to assert a point of view reflecting the beliefs of its employees or its farmers, that would be something else. It all comes down to authenticity. Unfortunately, too many advertising agencies and brand marketers try to take advantage of political debates as a means of achieving relevance. But for some brands, it comes across as both inauthentic and blatant spotlight-grabbing. To assume a brand that has a limited role in a consumer’s life knows what its customers care about is tremendous hubris. There are very few brands that can occupy that space in the minds of their customers. Brands should remember that.

Is there risk in choosing never to speak about controversial issues?

It all depends on the issue, but there is rarely a risk to never speaking about controversial topics. For example, if a brand that had very close ties with the LGBT community chose to remain silent or passive on those issues, it might affect their customer loyalty. If a brand has a clear, direct and authentic tie to consumers who are affected by the issue, they owe it to themselves and their customers to acknowledge it. How aggressive they should be is a choice only they can make.

From a practical perspective, who should make decisions regarding political statements? Does it make sense to have certain people designated to form an ad-hoc committee whenever an issue like this arises?

Any time you want to get a brand involved in a political issue, it needs to be elevated to the C-suite. Political issues are not for the faint of heart, and the potential blowback won’t stop at the brand manager level—it will go to the top. The organization needs to be aware of the issue and prepared for the fallout. If it is prepared, that will help the brand be true to the position it takes.

 

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