Long gone are the days when 50 million Americans all turned on their TV’s at the same time and watched the moon landing or an episode of Leave It to Beaver as one big happy family. Or at least that’s the nostalgic image of yesteryear that some people get when thinking of the media landscape before the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Xbox Live, DirectTV, Pandora, Netflix, and the 10,000 other ways you can waste time today.
And while of course America has never really been one big happy family, the reality is that, a year after a very contentious election, some very deep divides are obvious in our nation today. And it’s presenting a dilemma for businesses. Do you try to stay “neutral” in everything you do, or do you take a stand on certain issues that matter to you or your customer base? Both paths can be littered with landmines. You should always have a finger on the pulse of your customer tribe so that your business isn’t perceived as an outsider or outcast.
Businesses that take no public stand on any issues may think they are being pragmatic, and indeed that’s been the general tack for most businesses going back decades. Stay neutral and you won’t risk upsetting potential customers who have a wide range of views.
But as more and more businesses are discovering, in an era when almost any issue can become instantly politicized, it’s easy for a business to get dinged for decisions that were never even meant to be political. For example, Nordstrom started selling merchandise branded with Ivanka Trump’s name in 2009, years before her father became a polarizing political figure. At the time, Ivanka was offering an inoffensive “lifestyle brand” and Nordstrom never could have predicted her father’s path. But when they pulled the brand in late 2016 (after seeing sales plummet) they of course heard about it from the Twitterer-in-Chief.
Businesses may also unwittingly walk into an area they may not have realized has been politicized. For instance, Land’s End launched some marketing tied to Gloria Steinem, in what appeared to be an attempt to appeal to women’s rights and women’s issues. But because of Ms. Steinem’s history as an abortion rights advocate, the company quickly heard complaints from customers on the other side of the coin. And then heard even more complaints from people with pro-choice views when the company decided to pull the controversial ad campaign. Once you have appeared to take a side, you can quickly find yourself in a place where you have alienated a huge chunk of your customers.
Politicizing Your Business
Remaining neutral can be particularly hard for small business owners, since your business and your personality are so intertwined. For example, let’s say you are a gay man running a roofing business. You have a choice to make. Do you not mention your sexual orientation at all? That seems like the best approach at first, because why does that really matter to your business? But what if you serve a region with a higher than average gay population, and you want other gay folks to know they have a choice in supporting a gay-owned business? Do you mention it then? Or in the opposite scenario, where you serve an area that is less tolerant of your sexual orientation, do you sensor yourself for the sake of maximizing your business opportunities?
These are certainly not new questions for gay people, racial minorities and other marginalized groups trying to make a living. What IS new is that even “mainstream” opinions and values can be called into question on a moment’s notice, and by going with the flow, your business can easily get caught out when the tide turns. Making statements like “we support our local police” or “get better MPG and reduce climate change with our product” may have once seemed uncontroversial, but that’s no longer the case in today’s charged political landscape.
So, Who’s Your Tribe?
When trying to navigate these troubled waters, we encourage businesses to get back to first principles. Who are the people you serve? What matters to them? In essence, who is part of your tribe, and are you being a responsible member of the tribe as well? No business has the luxury of being everything to everyone. You have to make choices along the way, choices that will narrow down who you serve and who’s even interested in your product or service.
Closely related to the idea of tribe is the idea of authenticity. If you own a gun shop and don’t really believe in the messaging of the NRA, or run a business that caters to Asian Americans but aren’t passionate about the needs and issues in their communities, you’re in a very tricky spot these days. The businesses that succeed will be the ones where the owner and the staff are passionate, enthusiastic and at core, authentic about the mission and the value of what they offer. No one can predict the future, and no one business will perfectly meet the needs and sentiments of its tribe at all times. But being in business today means understanding and respecting your customers on a deeper level than ever before, so that you can remain a good member of the tribe.