Engaging in Political Action as a Brand: Rising Above the Noise Without Alienating Consumers

As of January 18, 2017, over 434,000 conservative news readers have signed a petition against Kellogg’s—not motivated by anything related to the company’s ingredients or manufacturing practices, but in opposition to its advertising choices. Nearly half a million consumers are angry that a brand is choosing not to advertise to them via their preferred newsite.

The controversy started when Kellogg’s announced it was pulling its ads from Breitbart.com. Speaking to Bloomberg, a Kellogg’s spokeswoman explained the brand wouldn’t work with any websites that weren’t “aligned with [their] values as a company.”

Normally, this kind of dispute would take place behind the scenes, over emails and phone calls between executives and media buyers. But Breitbart has refused to accept Kellogg’s decision quietly and the news site has responded with an online boycott, making the issue even more public. According to the #DumpKelloggs petition page, Kellogg’s has committed a “disgraceful act of cowardice … discrimination and intense prejudice” in order to “placate left-wing totalitarians.”

To anyone who doesn’t frequent Breitbart but is familiar with its political leanings, this language may seem borderline comically hypocritical. The news site—founded by right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart and formerly managed by Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon—has run headlines such as “Young Muslims in the West Are a Ticking Time Bomb,” “Big Trans Hate Machine Targets Pitching Great Curt Schilling” and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.”

Breitbart’s proponents see the site an antidote to what they consider the overly “politically correct” mainstream “liberal media,” as they call it, which they claim shames and silences dissenting viewpoints. Opponents, meanwhile, see a news organization that encourages hate speech, spreads misinformation under the guise of journalism, and avoids ethical culpability by blaming the populations it victimizes.

But however you feel about Breitbart, we’re all seeing some alarming trends following November’s results: echo chambers, extreme bias in media consumption habits, and, a seeming inability to address and see past our own biases by engaging in open dialogues. As Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election signaled to so many of his non-supporters, the definition of a “trusted news source” has perhaps become diluted. 

According to the Pew Research Center more adults are getting their news on social media more than anywhere else. This signifies a lack of exposure to diverging opinions which is why, so often, it seems we live in an opinion bubble. The trend to consume only the information we choose to follow often supports only our already-formed opinions.

In this extremely politically charged climate, can a brand like Kellogg’s take a stand for what it believes is right without excluding specific audiences? How do you avoid a Breitbart-style boycott while explicitly choosing not to affiliate with any groups who don’t share your values?

We ask these questions of ourselves and our clients not simply because we want to avoid negative publicity. We also believe that every brand has a responsibility to participate in conversations with customers and stakeholders whose lives are impacted by the brand’s business. And as a certified B Corporation, we understand the important role a for-profit company can play in supporting social and environmental rights. Like Kellogg’s, we always strive to make sure we don’t undermine the values we stand for. At the same time, it’s clear that the wrong marketing or PR move can have the opposite of its intended effect and reinforce the walls of our personal echo chambers.

The tension between making a stand and making an enemy frequently bears on our work for the companies we serve. It’s a delicate balance, and achieving it isn’t always easy. For instance, as we were coming up with new branding and content for Women’s Healthcare Associates, we faced a messaging challenge: How could the healthcare provider best communicate its commitment to all women, regardless of identity, background or political beliefs? Is it even possible to speak to such a diverse population, during an incredibly heated and politically charged time?

Our answer: YES. Tasked with creating a social media message that spoke to the organization’s broad base of supporters, we helped WHA emphasize shared values like tolerance and love. What we learned is that building a community is not a question of who to exclude, but who to include. It’s one of those well-worn truths that sounds trite until you realize you see it in action every day.

Inclusive brands emphasize positive impact. They have a oneness of purpose. They define themselves in the affirmative: “This is who we are and this is what we want to accomplish.”

The same is true for anyone seeking to make a change. As creatives, we have the capabilities and experience to help companies tell and spread compelling stories. As a brand, you have the opportunity not only to build your audience, but to challenge your audience’s assumptions, broaden their perspectives and affirm their truths. Consumers look toward companies for answers to problems in their lives and communities. Accept that responsibility and you just might inspire others to follow your lead.

You have the choice between standing for a cause or standing against whoever disagrees with you. One choice may result in a boycott. The other can build a bridge.