Without a doubt, we live in a politically charged time. Partisan politics pervade almost every corner of daily life, with strangers and friends alike going to bat for their ideologies, if only on social media. This climate can be a minefield for small businesses, which mostly try to stay away from public issues. But some businesses are reaping rewards from dipping their toes, sometimes reluctantly, into the political pool.
A recent article in The New York Times relayed the story of Nicole Morgenthau and her shop, Finch Knitting and Sewing Studio in Leesburg, Virginia. In response to a potential boycott of her store for perceived stances related to the election of Donald Trump as president, Morgenthau posted the threat and her response to her Facebook page.
The result: By addressing the issue rather than ignoring it, Morgenthau received hundreds of likes and shares (on a page that typically has a few dozen likes per post). And she’s seen a 60% jump in weekend sales since that time.
Morgenthau’s response, which had a warm, conciliatory tone, was hardly the type of hardline political stance that most PR firms tell companies of all sizes to avoid. But it’s true that in certain situations, getting political can be a boon to business, whether in the form of increased sales, greater exposure, social media bumps, or securing the loyalty of employees and patrons.
Here are four situations where getting political could have an upside:
In today’s world, many issues previously not seen as particularly political are falling under that umbrella. For example, Patagonia, a California-based company known for its high-end outdoor wear, is famous for standing up for the environment and social responsibility, and defending public spaces. With debate on climate change and environmentalism currently raging at the highest levels of government, these stances have become politicized.
But this environmental stance is what makes Patagonia the company it is today. It’s impossible to separate the brand from its environmentalism. So, standing up for the environment actually becomes crucial for Patagonia’s success and longevity. And some companies wanting to attract a certain sector of talent might want to follow suit: A recent survey of millennial workers by Deloitte showed that more than half refuse to work somewhere that does not match their own values.
In other cases, a strong stance can help you differentiate yourself from other competitors in a crowded market, according to Shel Horowitz, a profitability consultant and author with over 40 years experience in public relations.
“I submit that Ben & Jerry’s, a funny little company from Vermont, would never have gotten anywhere near their 40% market share in super-premium ice cream without its very public politics,” says Horowitz. “If you’re standing in the supermarket ice cream aisle, and you’re trying to choose between equally wonderful flavors from B&J’s and Haagen Dazs, knowing that B&J’s pays cocoa growers fairly, hires disabled people in some of its scoop shops, funds solar festivals, and has spoken out on issues that matter to you, where are you going to spend your $4?”
Sometimes, a CEO is so passionate about a topic that they are compelled to speak out, regardless of the repercussions. A good example of that is AirBNB CEO Brian Chesky, who took to Twitter to speak out against Trump’s controversial travel restrictions. The company even crafted an ad campaign around the topic.
This situation is much different for small businesses, which don’t necessarily have teams of PR and crisis management experts to help craft the perfect message (or response to fallout) that large corporations do.
But when the urge to take a stand strikes, it can be hard to defy yourself.
On one side of the spectrum, Cherie Corso—who was also mentioned in the NYT article—owns a site that sells beauty products called G2organics.com. People told her not to go public about her passion for the new president, but she couldn’t hide how she felt. “I volunteered for his campaign. I was proud,” she says. “I posted a picture on my website and wrote a story. I received a lot of hate mail, but I also gained new customers from different parts of the country.”
On the other, Horowitz, who works with green and social entrepreneurship businesses, also found opportunities to turn an affinity for a cause into an opportunity.
“We target the socially and environmentally aware cultural creatives who seek those companies out, and that’s a plenty big enough market,” he says.
The lesson here: Unless your politics are extremely radical, you likely won’t be alienating the entire market by taking a stand. The world is big enough for lots of opinions, and some potential customers will likely agree with you and encourage others to shop with you out of solidarity.
Some business owners might understandably worry that even this type of foray into politics could alienate shoppers. Is it shortsighted to appeal to a subset of the population, no matter how large that subset appears?
“I do not think appealing to specific buyers lacks imagination and foresight. Businesses should conduct market research, clearly define target audiences, and create buyer personas for marketing efforts. The general population can be included. You can change your objectives down the line,” says Kevin Lindon Ryan, a PR and marketing specialist and small business owner at KLR | PR.
That may seem impossible—how can you make a political statement that doesn’t involve taking sides? But Ryan says there are ways to involve yourself in the conversations without getting too contentious.
“A topic like gender equality or the right to vote may be controversial. However, celebrating election day with a message for everyone to get out to vote, or an empowering Women’s History Month post may have political undertones but not be controversial,” he says.
Sometimes, you don’t go looking for politics. Sometimes they find you. The Morgenthau anecdote is the perfect example of this situation. The knitting store owner took what was clearly an explosive topic affecting her community and turned it into a positive.
When deciding how to proceed in these situations, factor in how important it is for you to take a stand. Do you consider your business to be a pillar of the local community? Do you see those around you being affected by this issue, and your platform as a community leader could be used to alleviate how those people are affected? Weigh these questions carefully while crafting your response.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when wading into the political arena:
Getting political is a dangerous game. Even Ryan, who says there are instances in which businesses can get political, admits that “in general, we advise clients to avoid controversial topics, politics, and religion.”
But that’s becoming more difficult to do every day. If you are tactful, respectful, and honest enough about what your politics are, and why, you could reap rewards in the form of increased business, improved customer loyalty, and happier employees.