Whatever happened to the wall that keeps business and politics separate?


For years, companies big and small made every effort to keep their nose out of politics for fairly obvious reasons. Why risk alienating your customers and potentially harming your brand’s reputation just to be another voice in the crowded political mix?

Today, however, more and more companies are becoming less and less concerned with keeping a pristine divide between business and politics.

Nike, the global sports apparel company who is no stranger to controversial advertising campaigns, took this calculated risk with their latest marketing initiative featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

To say their new ad, featured above, is causing some controversy across the United States and beyond is an understatement. For those of you unfamiliar with Kaepernick, he gained notoriety with many conservatives south of the border for his decision to lead silent protests against perceived police brutality and social injustice towards African Americans by kneeling during the U.S. national anthem.

Kaepernick’s actions have seen him ostracised by the league, which his supporters say is unjust treatment because of his views. He’s been singled out by President Donald Trump and his surrogates as being “un-American” and for “disrespecting the flag and military,” further dividing football fans across the country. The ad has caused thousands of people to vent their outrage on social media against Nike, with some burning whatever swoosh-labeled attire they own. Many even vowed to boycott the brand who they accuse of further driving a wedge into an already divided country.

So why would Nike choose to sign one of the most divisive athletes in generations to honour the thirtieth anniversary of their “Just Do It” slogan? For starters, Nike took the view that taking what is unequivocally a political stance could prove popular with their largest customer base: people under 35 years of age, who make up two-thirds of their customers in the United States.

You don’t need to be a political science genius to know that a majority of millennials typically support progressive policies. They won’t be the ones burning their Nike runners. Instead, they’re now more likely to buy and wear Nike as a form of statement. While Nike’s stock did take a minor dip following the campaign’s release, some estimates say the buzz generated $43 million in free advertising and is also leading young people to snatch up the company’s stock.

Whether or not you agree with Nike’s position, the fact is they full well knew they would anger and potentially lose some of their customers, but still made the conscious decision to put their money where their mouth is.

While Nike will most likely come out ahead with their controversial campaign, it doesn’t always work out for national brands who decide to put their politics on full blast.

Popular fast food chain Chik-fil-A found itself in the centre of the same-sex marriage debate in 2012 after Dan Cathy, its president, told a syndicated radio talk show that he does not support same-sex marriage, adding: “I pray God’s mercy on our generation that such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

His comments drew swift condemnation, and like Nike, saw many vowing to boycott the restaurant. While Chik-Fil-A’s stock actually jumped a bit, Cathy found himself and his company in hot water again following the Supreme Court ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal, tweeting his displeasure about the decision. A few years later, Cathy said he regretted dragging his company into the debate, and announced that his restaurant chain would no longer donate money to anti-LGBTQ groups. While these negative headlines happened over five years ago, they have lingered. The restaurant’s planned expansion into Canada next year has already sparked anger and calls to boycott it north of the border.

Companies are also vulnerable to major events outside of their control that may force them to take a stand when faced with growing public backlash. Following the tragic mass shooting that left 17 people dead at a high school in Florida, U.S. airline giants United and Delta, along with rental car companies such as Hertz and Avis announced they would stop giving discount rates to NRA members. This happened after the pro-gun association pushed back against efforts to curb sales of high-powered assault rifles.

Again, there was a risk the airlines and car rental companies would anger at least a portion of their customer base. But they also certainly weighed the impact on their overall reputation. After all, silence could imply agreement, so action won over on balance.

The reality is that we now scrutinize companies much more closely and against a much broader criteria. Politics is massively influential in this regard.

Consider this example: just hours after Trump’s immigration ban on six predominantly Muslim countries was first announced, NYC taxi drivers called for an hour long strike from picking passengers up at JFK International Airport in a show of protest. Uber, on the other hand, said via Twitter it was canceling it’s surge pricing. The twitterverse erupted in anger, and #DeleteUber began trending. Uber failed to consider that its tweet looked as though it was undercutting the taxi strike, even though earlier that night it’s CEO denounced Trump’s decision.

To the public, Uber’s actions spoke louder than its words.

This change in the level and type of public scrutiny levied on companies has erased the line that traditionally existed between business and politics. And as companies consider whether to wade into the latest storm, there is a clear lesson that bears repeating: your customer base is not a monolithic block. Just as the issue you’re likely facing is cast in shades of grey rather than black and white, your reaction will be seen the same way by the people who buy what you sell.