Without risk, growth is impossible.
In the boardroom, this is not a controversial statement. Corporations have always understood that without calculated risk, they might survive but would cease innovating and expanding into new markets. But in communications, risk isn’t sought out. A reticent communications policy, built of intermittent press releases, annual and quarterly reports, and a token digital presence, has often been enough to keep brands safe.
But those rules are changing. Staying silent at the wrong moment can now trigger a social media backlash, while extravagant risks can awaken and mobilize new audiences. Think back to the Republican presidential primaries. Donald Trump managed to defeat a deep bench of adversaries who had every conventional advantage by taking risk after risk after risk. His reward was a swelling flood of attention that carried him all the way to the White House.
The deep uncertainties triggered by Trump’s election, as well as the destabilizing forces that made it possible, have let loose a deep desire in the public to make sense of things, and they are looking to public figures, institutions, and brands to do it.
The good news is that a little bit of courage will go a long way toward satisfying this desire. Brands and public figures that hold the line on certain core values, like human rights and freedom of expression, have found themselves buoyed through crisis by outbreaks of mass, unexpected goodwill. Conversely, brands that are perceived as waffling on the same issues are penalized with sudden explosions of public ire on social media. In the age of Trump, it’s fair to say that nothing is non-partisan and that no act will be greeted with universal acclaim. But when brands get it right, the ensuing controversy breaks decidedly in their favor.
Coca-Cola’s Superbowl spot this year is a perfect example. The ad, which features a many-voiced, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual performance of America’s national anthem, was seen as a sly refutation of Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric. Despite a #boycottcoke backlash on Twitter, the majority response, both from media critics and from the public, was high praise. In the flurry of online debate, the ad’s critics only seemed to galvanize further support for it. Coke’s ad did not just coincidentally appear to be opposed to Trump’s policies, since it was an intentional re-airing of the brand’s 2014 Superbowl spot. Why else make your entry into the most competitive moment in American advertising with old material, if not to make a statement? By taking a calculated risk to make a clear statement, Coke undoubtedly won the day.
Conversely, the clothing brand Under Armour, whose CEO Kevin Plank made positive comments about President Trump, recently found its brand in combat with the starpower of some of its celebrity spokespeople. In the wake of Plank’s statements, made more incendiary by Trump’s travel ban against Muslims, superstar ballerina Misty Copeland released a statement to her 1.3 million followers on Instagram criticizing Plank and Under Armour and speaking out in favor of diversity and inclusion. Copeland’s statements received widespread positive coverage.
The most infamous brand backlash triggered by Trump so far took place in the days following the President’s Muslim ban, which was imposed on Friday, January 27. The day after the ban, from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m., the New York City taxi driver’s union halted all pick-up service from JFK airport, in solidarity with two Iraqis being detained there by officials in compliance with the ban.
At 7:30 p.m. Uber announced a suspension of its surge pricing on trips to and from the airport, an act which was quickly perceived as the equivalent of crossing a picket line during a strike. The fallout was swift—more than 300,000 people deleted the Uber app, rallying around the #deleteuber hashtag on Twitter. To mitigate the damage, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick later chose to resign from President Trump’s economic advisory council.
While its actions may not have been explicitly political, Uber’s announcement of the elimination of its surge pricing that night inserted the brand into an impassioned global conversation. In wading into a politically charged environment with an insufficiently clear message, Uber faced considerable backlash.
In Coke’s case, the reward for staking out a position was a positive balance of positive attention. In the case of Uber, the penalty was negative attention. Uber claims it was not trying to be opportunistic, but in light of Plank’s recent comments, Uber’s brand managers should have opted to stay silent in the days after the ban.
In the age of Trump, which will likely continue to be polarizing, high risk, and high reward, it’s important to take risks, but to do so in a way that is both coherent and intentional.
Don’t take risks just for the sake of it, and don’t feel compelled to weigh in on everything. Focus on the issues that relate to the value that your brand provides. It makes sense for tech companies to speak up about the immigration ban’s potential to keep STEM talent out of the U.S., or for food companies to talk about the harmful effects of a trade war with Mexico. But if you don’t own an issue or are not truly passionate about it as it aligns with your values, don’t speak up, it could be seen as trespassing, maybe even opportunistic.
And, as Sir Martin Sorrell recently pointed out in The Economist, keep the long view in sight. In times of massive disruption, it’s easy to get tripped up by the rapid, complex back and forth that the new administration thrives on. For every quibble you join, your chances of being misunderstood go up. It’s okay keep your messages bold, but be sure to keep them simple as well—both on brand and on the values that will still matter in a few weeks, months, or even years.