This is a paper presented by Stéphanie Guimond, a recent graduate of the Global Digital Marketing and Localization Certification (GDMLC) program. This paper presents the work being produced by students of The Localization Institute’s Global Digital Marketing and Localization Certificate program. The contents of this Paper are presented to create discussion in the global marketing industry on this topic; the contents of this paper are not to be considered an adopted standard of any kind. This does not represent the official position of Brand2Global Conference, The Localization Institute, or the author’s organization.
I need a hero!
Companies taking political stands in digital media
In the not-so-distant past, most American companies would steer clear of political issues, thinking it better to remain neutral. Companies and their CEOs considered wading into political waters dangerous, taking a position on the issues of the day risky. With the rise of the Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Never Again movements, and with Donald Trump as president, we are witnessing a change in the kinds of messages companies are putting out in their digital media. Companies are starting to consider associating themselves with the right cause less risky than taking no stand at all. This new attitude extends all the way to the C-suite, with frontline executives becoming “activist CEOs”, as Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel (2018) of the Harvard Business review call them (https://hbr.org/cover-story/2018/03/divided-we-lead).
While hitting the right note with customers on an issue of the day can be a great way to connect with them and express your company’s values, getting a political message wrong can be devastating and cause lasting damage to a brand. Companies must carefully research and manage the risks involved with taking a political stand. Messages must be sincere and align with a company’s actual values, as well as those of their customers. Having a diverse staff can help define a political stand by providing many different perspectives on it, but this is not enough. Creating a space in which people can express honest opinions on strategies that stretch limits without fear of reprisal is critical to making the blending of politics and digital media content work. As people who must constantly consider issues of culture, ethnicity, politics, language, and gender when creating content, localizers are particularly well-suited to helping guide how companies communicate political stands.
Why is the trend of companies taking political stands happening?
Before describing the benefits of companies taking carefully considered and constructed political stands, it is important to understand where the trend of doing so is coming from. The main impetus is the increasing political polarization of American society. According to the Pew Research Centre (2017), the percentage of Americans with ideologically consistent views has increased between 1994 and 2017. American political points of view have also become more tightly associated with partisanship, particularly for those considered politically-engaged (Pew Research Centre, 2017 http://www.people-press.org/interactives/political-polarization-1994-2017/). Here is a comparison of what the political landscape looked like in America in 2011, versus 2017:
(Pew Research Centre, 2017 http://www.people-press.org/interactives/political-polarization-1994-2017/)
This political polarization has led to much greater interest among the American public in the position of CEOs on political issues, which in turn affects their purchasing decisions. This is truer for millennials than any other generational group. Around 51% of millennials report being more likely to make a purchase from a company whose CEO shares their stand on a given political question than they would otherwise, an increase of 5% over 2016 (Weber and Shandwick and KRC Research, 2017, http://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/millennial-demand-for-ceo-activism-surges-1002198935). The story is different for members of Generation X, only 33% of whom say a company’s political stand would affect their purchase intent; baby boomers do not lag far behind at 30%. This means that while the opinions of Generation X and baby boomers might sometimes water down the need for companies to take a political stand, and may make doing so a bad idea for companies whose customers are primarily members of those generations, over time as Millennials own a larger piece of the economy taking a stand will become more important (Weber and Shandwick and KRC Research, 2017, https://www.webershandwick.com/uploads/news/files/ceo-activism-in-2017-high-noon-in-the-c-suite.pdf).
How do companies communicate their political stands? Examples from the digital media trenches.
Some great examples of how Millennials are affecting the stand taken by companies on political issues of the day have come out of the Parkland school shooting tragedy. Student leaders are organizing hundreds of thousands of their peers in activism promoting gun control via the #Never Again movement. Many retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Avis, Enterprise, Delta Airlines, and others have cut all ties with the NRA following the public outcry over the Parkland tragedy (Pasarow, 2018, https://www.refinery29.com/2018/02/192103/parkland-companies-reaction-changes?bucketed=true). Of these retailers, Dick’s Sporting Goods stands out because the Parkland shooter purchased a gun from the company, though it was not used at the school. Dick’s decided to change the age to purchase guns at its stores from 18 to 21, a move receiving a favorable reaction from most Americans. Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack cited the Parkland students’ activism as the reason Dick’s had chosen to do something about gun control. Mr. Stack didn’t stop there – he also issued a memo containing a bulleted list of gun control policies that he wants the US government to enact, fully engaging in corporate activism that he sees as consistent with Dick’s corporate values (McGregor, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2018/03/06/dicks-sporting-goods-took-a-stand-on-gun-sales-and-made-a-big-statement/?utm_term=.4f346d15bbfd).
Although some companies see the Parkland students’ activism as positive, it has had its detractors. In recent days, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized #NeverAgain activist David Hogg for not achieving acceptance at the colleges of his choice. His reaction was to call his Twitter followers, of which there are 660,000, into action, telling them to write to Ingraham’s advertisers saying they will boycott them if they continue advertising on her show. The results? Of twelve advertisers Hogg identified on Twitter, eleven announced they would no longer advertise on Ingraham’s show, with many issuing statements clearly meant to appeal to the young people who initiated the boycott. For example, Nestlé wrote “Hey, thanks for letting us know how you feel (and your neat space stuff)- we have no plans to buy ads on the show in the future.” Other advertisers were careful to note that Ingraham’s comments were “inconsistent with their values”, or words to that effect (Tuttle, 2018, http://time.com/money/5222218/laura-ingraham-david-hogg-advertising-boycott/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=money.com&utm_campaign=ideal-media-internal-recirculation&utm_term=68786&utm_content=2212060). The lesson in this example is that though Millennials are a subset of the American populace, they are expert social media users, and can galvanize support for causes overnight. Companies ignore this at their peril.
One other, much more positive case of a company receiving more than the share they were expecting of social media attention over a political stand comes from investment firm State Street Global Advisors (SSGA). The night before Women’s Day 2017, they unveiled a statue called Fearless Girl, a 50-inch-tall bronze girl with a very defiant look on her face and her hands on her hips. She was placed facing Wall Street’s Charging Bull statue. SSGA hired advertising firm McCann New York to come up with the concept, apparently on a shoestring budget. SSGA didn’t invest any money in paid media for the statue or the unveiling, but the social media results were nothing short of staggering. Tweets about Fearless Girl reached over 1 billion in the first twelve hours of her existence. She brought in $7.4 million in free advertising for SSGA across TV, social media, and radio (Richards, 2017, http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/fearless-girl-stole-the-worlds-heart-but-what-did-it-do-for-the-clients-business/).
The best part about the Fearless Girl story is that her creation was not a stunt to promote SSGA, but rather a reflection of the company’s values when it comes to women’s empowerment. Fearless Girl’s purpose is to raise awareness of SSGA’s SHE fund, through which they invest solely in companies who put women in high-level leadership positions. The investment paid off – Fearless Girl increased the trading volume of the fund by 384 percent over the three days following the her unveiling, and 170 percent in the 20 business days following that. The world fell so in love with Fearless Girl that 40,000 people petitioned SSGA to keep her in place through 2018. Though her face may look defiant to some, SSGA says her expression means “I want to participate in the American economy in this notion of American prosperity that Wall Street represents”. (Richards, 2017, http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/fearless-girl-stole-the-worlds-heart-but-what-did-it-do-for-the-clients-business/). The sincerity behind Fearless Girl is a huge part of her charm and effectiveness. If the company didn’t live these values, the hypocrisy would most certainly suffer detection.
Practical steps companies can take to craft a political stand, and how localizers can help.
All companies taking a political stand would love to have the outcome that State Street Global Advisors achieved with Fearless Girl, but how can they accomplish this? There are many examples of political stands that produced disastrous results, leaving audiences wondering how these campaigns or messages passed muster in the marketing department. Creating a diverse workplace is one way to avoid political messaging pitfalls. Having people working for your company that come from many different backgrounds provides lots of perspectives on a message. Diversity itself, though, is not enough. Ensuring that in your company, people can express opinions that may go against the grain without experiencing negative consequences is key.
Localizers have a skill set that can lend itself handily to helping identify political content that may offend. Localizers offer a wealth of knowledge regarding issues of diversity, as recognizing them and adjusting content to take them into consideration is part of what they do every day. Most localizers also have experience with critiquing content on an issue of diversity that no one else in a room might be able to spot and defending the validity of that critique.
All the above notwithstanding, how does a company decide what political stand to take? There are number of considerations that go into answering this question.
- Ensure your message fits with your company’s actions and values. Sincerity is key.
- Know your audience. If it is mostly comprised of American Millennials, a stand is likely required.
- Establish the risk of taking the stand when it comes to your stakeholders. Not all of them will be onboard with your message.
- Assess the impact of the message on employees – will they feel less loyal and included in the company’s culture after the stand is taken?
- Discuss the stand you are going to take with your board of directors. They don’t like surprises.
- Think before you speak. Take the time to plan your message and get it right.
- Consider partnering with other companies to support the cause at hand.
- Consult the company’s PR department first.
- Consider tone of voice and the method of delivery for your message, and whether they match the message itself.
- Have a crisis preparedness plan in place in case things go wrong, and prepare your media departments for a potential increase in inquiries.
(Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, 2017, https://www.webershandwick.com/uploads/news/files/ceo-activism-in-2017-high-noon-in-the-c-suite.pdf)
Entering the world of corporate activism is daunting but can also be very rewarding. With careful planning, companies can create great relationships with customers based on sincere interest in causes that are important to them. Companies also have the power to create change, and to borrow a tired platitude but one that applies nonetheless, make the world a better place.
Stéphanie Guimond moved to Vancouver from her home town of Montréal, a place that makes it easy to fall in love with language. Fortunately, there is a job for people who have done that – localization. Stéphanie has been working in the localization industry since 2008 and is currently plying her trade with FLIR Systems Inc. (Richmond, BC) as a Localization Project Manager. She is responsible for all aspects of localization consulting and project management for FLIR’s Integrated Imaging Solutions (IIS) Group. Her most recent accomplishments include deploying XTM at IIS and spreading its benefits throughout FLIR.
In her spare time, Stéphanie loves to garden and will go on endlessly about tomatoes that will actually grow in Vancouver if given half a chance. Or she might tell you about the time she grew peanuts. You never know. Apart from gardening, Stéphanie loves hanging out on the back of the family Harley Davidson, or in her newly renovated retro trailer.
Connect with Stéphanie:
Email Stéphanie: Stephanie.Guimond[at]flir.com
I learned a lot from the course and will definitely be applying that knowledge going forward. I have also recommended it to our marketing team here.
Chatterji, Aaron K. and Toffel, Michael W. (2018). Divided we Lead. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from https://hbr.org/cover-story/2018/03/divided-we-lead
Markets Insider (2017). Millennial Demand for CEO Activism Surges. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from
McGregor (2018). Dick’s Sporting Goods took a stand on gun sales — and made a big statement.
Washington Post. Retrieved April 4, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2018/03/06/dicks-sporting-goods-took-a-stand-on-gun-sales-and-made-a-big-statement/?utm_term=.4f346d15bbfd
Pasarow, A. These Companies Have Cut Ties With The NRA. Refinery 29. Retrieved April 4, 2018, from
Pew Research Centre, US Politics and Policy (2017). Political Polarization, 1994 – 2017. Retrieved April 1, 2018, from http://www.people-press.org/interactives/political-polarization-1994-2017/
Richards, K. (2017). Fearless Girl Stole the World’s Heart, but What Did It Do for the Client’s Business?
Adweek. Retrieved on March 27, 2018, from http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/fearless-girl-stole-the-worlds-heart-but-what-did-it-do-for-the-clients-business/
Tuttle, B. (2018). All the Advertisers Dropping Laura Ingraham After She Mocked Parkland Survivor David Hogg. Time. Retrieved April 4, 2018, from http://time.com/money/5222218/laura-ingraham-david-hogg-advertising-boycott/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=money.com&utm_campaign=ideal-media-internal-recirculation&utm_term=68786&utm_content=2212060
Weber Shandwick and KRC Research (2017). CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite. Retrieved April 1, 2018, from https://www.webershandwick.com/uploads/news/files/ceo-activism-in-2017-high-noon-in-the-c-suite.pdf