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Corporate activism and marketing empathy

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

A few months back an article took a look at how Levi’s and Wrangler had grown different markets through unique branding. Levi’s associated with progressive causes, building a strong affiliation with younger people, and helping it to stand out in a segment it once owned. Wrangler had gone down a more traditional marketing path, supporting rodeos and other events that drew a more old-school crowd, and while it avoided political activism — it became seen as the anti-Levi’s. The key to smart corporate.

Here's why.

Corporate activism has long had a cost. Coors took years to walk back legacy ties to the John Birch Society. Domino's Pizza founder supported anti-choice causes, and famously, Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A imposed conservative beliefs on their business. This cost them customers. But corporate activist-companies like Apple and Starbucks, along with Levi’s are perceived differently by the market. Starbucks’ 2016 “Race Together” campaign was controversial at the time but, with the perspective of Black Lives Matter, it seems ahead of its time. Apple took the extraordinary step to look at human right abuses of its distributors, thus being one of the first major manufacturers to care about the lives of workers at companies that sold it parts. That added to brand, and that is smart marketing.

Other groups seemed able to sidestep perceived extremism through powerful communications. Target walked back its support for the conservative MN Forward a decade ago. Comcast has a controversial legacy for massive political spending and allegations of poor choices.

So how does Twitter's suspending the account of a president signal a change? We know that from the Arab Spring. And in the same way, Twitter was used to organize an attack on Washington.

The concept of brand in a nation as divided as the United States is true to brand values. But the pull of a positive, open set of beliefs is often more helpful than a restrictive one. So, be it against LGBTQ+ rights, or reproductive rights it’s more divisive than caring, tolerance or helping worker rights. Empathy - it just works better than conservative overreach.

Back to Twitter. Both Republican and Democrats have said that they wish the president was off Twitter. And for years, Twitter caught grief for allowing non-truths and personal tactics to come out of the Oval Office. All the while, Twitter did little. They added disclaimers after the election, and finally stepped up after the Capitol Insurrection. At that point, many seemed hopeful to move on, so shutting down a feed was less an act of corporate activism, but more dodging blame.

Going forward it will be hard to be on the sidelines. As the nation grows further and further apart, a company finding middle ground will prove more elusive. So, curated activism, as pioneered by Apple, Starbucks and Levi’s may show a path forward in a new world of political disagreement.


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