Why Brands Should Not Take a Stand in the Age of Internet Outrage

In this day and age, many organizations are feeling the pressure to pick a side on a number of politically-charged issues. However, PR pros should caution their clients to take a step back and consider the consequences.

Every day, it seems that someone is reiterating the same point: the world is more divided than ever before. This constant talk of division also brings up the idea that there is a need to take sides, and many brands are doing just that. Taking a firm stance on one side of a political issue and disavowing the other has become a popular marketing tool recently, but is it the right move for your brand?

Woke Washing

Consumers are more conscious and demand more transparency than they ever have in the past. When a brand chooses to support an issue, consumers expect more than profit donation or a limited-time promotion supporting a trendy cause. Brands who choose to take the popular side on an issue for good PR can find themselves in hot water when customers realize that they don’t actually do much to support that cause. They then get accused of “woke washing” —acting like they are socially conscious when in fact they are just using the cause for good press and to stir up goodwill among their customers.

Pride has become a prime example of the woke washing trend. Every brand from Listerine to Chipotle sports rainbow branding during June only for it to disappear as July rolls around, leaving LGBT+ customers to wonder if these brands supported their community or just used them for attention. If brands are going to plant their flag behind a cause they have to take serious steps to support that cause, and sometimes it's better just to refrain from picking a side.

There is No 'Winning Side'

When a brand is choosing a side on a political issue, they are ultimately choosing to alienate 50 percent of the population that is on the other side of the issue. Global, billion-dollar companies like Nike may be able to take the negative attention that comes from something like their Colin Kapernick campaign, but it is important to remember that they are an outlier.

Most brands can’t afford to lose half of the population or suffer the loss in profits that comes from as boycott. By choosing not to engage in political debates brands may lose out on a small amount of media attention or support from a very vocal subset of people, but they also avoid the backlash that is bound to come from the other side of the debate.

Standing the Test of Time

Times change, and what is popular today may be extremely unpopular next year. The politics of 50 years ago are clearly not those of today, and there is no telling what politics will be like fifty years from now.

Brands who hinge their identities on politics risk looking like hypocrites years from now when they inevitably change their positions on certain political discussions based on leadership, popular opinion and more. Staying out of hot-button issues allows brands to maintain a consistent presence and message for years to come.
Taking a political stance is a risk for brands—for some it can pay off big, but for others it can crash and burn, ultimately hurting your business’s reputation as well as its bottom line. Staying apolitical allows you to stay true to your core practices without “performing” activism, retain customers on both sides of an issue and stand the test of time.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a PR agency.