Companies, Politics, and Religion, do they mix?

Business man with his index finger to his mouth to silence a conversation.

Mark Twain once articulated, “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.” However, with the rise of social media, it seems that advice is widely ignored. The computer screen provides a false veil of anonymity that empowers the fingers to convey thoughts through the keyboard that would normally not be uttered by the tongue. In fact, politeness, in this forum, has practically disappeared.

As a modern-day business, it is imperative to have an internet presence, not just a website, but also social media. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook are the three most popular social media platforms. According to statistics, 1.66 billion users log into Facebook every-single-day, and a Facebook business page is one of the least expensive but most effective ways to reach your customers.

However, the messaging presented on a company website and social media pages must be carefully crafted to avoid alienating individuals or groups of potential customers. The question is, should a business owner’s personal beliefs be part of their business philosophy? It is a tough question and one that does not have a black and white answer.

Some PR experts say that companies can promote their businesses, attract customers, and increase sales by taking a public stance on issues. In contrast, other PR experts warn that wading into social or political issues poses substantial risks.

According to the Edelman 2017 Earned Brand report, “Belief-Driven Buyers are now the majority in every market surveyed, across all age groups and all income levels.” More than two-thirds of “belief-driven” buyers will not purchase products from a brand that remains silent on an issue they believe should be addressed.

Ricardo Casas of Fahrenheit Marketing advises companies to avoid displeasing customers by supporting neutral, non-polarizing issues. “I’ve seen companies commit serious PR blunders as they seek to align themselves with a segment of the community they serve, not realizing that they’re alienating the other.”

One of the hot-topic issues that can endear customers to a company is sustainability. They support companies that donate a portion of profits to projects that protect the environment. Also, companies that make a conscious effort to source materials that are grown or manufactured using fair trade pricing, humane labor practices with equitable pay, and non-polluting production methods, have seen steady growth in customer loyalty and revenue. 

On the other hand, J. Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and author of four books, warns that “Brands are not politicians. Taking a political stance makes a brand a lobbying or advocacy group. While this may appeal to all or part of a brand’s consumers, taking a political stance means that a brand is pushing a political agenda on behalf of an interested constituency. Unlike political groups, brands can’t win by doing so.”

Over the past several decades, some brands have faced intense criticism due to donations made to politicians or causes and corporate policies based on management’s political and/or religious views. Contributions are generally made to influence public policies that affect the corporate bottom line profits. Corporate policies can affect both the employees’ rights and the way customers are treated.

Despite the criticism of their political and religious policies, some major brands have continued to be successful. One reason, according to Kilrk Deis of Treehouse 51, is that they are transparent and honest about their core beliefs. “If you can be true to yourself, haters will hate, but the fans will grow. Don’t let ‘pleasing everyone’ slow you down from sharing your brand with the world,” stated Deis.

The big question is, can your small business afford to lose customers?

Some think brands’ political stands can increase sales by strengthening the loyalty of core audiences. However, loyalty does not increase a brand’s sales since loyal customers already regularly purchase its products. Instead, brands grow by gaining new customers.

Small retail business owners with one or two locations already face the daunting challenge of making the public aware that they exist and then drawing customers away from larger corporate chains with perhaps dozens of convenient locations. Becoming a vocal supporter of divisive national political issues and candidates could work against the small business by eliminating half of the already small potential customer base—those customers who do not support the same political ideals.

This is not to say that business owners should not be involved in politics or support political candidates; that is everyone’s personal right and what makes the American democracy work. However, business websites and social media pages should maintain a strict business only policy without personal opinion or partisanship. 

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