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The Dangers of Mixing Politics and Branding (Chick-fil-A and Boy Scouts of America, take notes)

By Reggie Myers

Most brands try to steer clear of controversial topics such as sexuality, religion and politics.  However, as people increasingly evaluate brands based not only on their products or services, but also on the people delivering the products and services it can become increasingly difficult to steer clear of controversial topics or “play it safe,” even when it’s necessary.  In fact, playing it safe in today’s society can label your brand as boring, impersonal and socially unconscious.  Mixing your brand with controversy correctly can generate a positive uproar and grow your customer base, but mixing them incorrectly or unnecessarily can be a detrimental cost to your brand.

There are two brands that recently hurt their images when they carelessly mixed their branding message with “politics”: Chick-Fil-A and Boy Scouts of America (BSA).  Chick-Fil-A’s president, Dan Cathy, recently said the organization was “guilty as charged” in response to rumors that the franchise has supported conservative organizations against marriage equality.  He then went on the Kenneth Coleman Show, an independent online radio program, and continued to explain his views, going as far to say that he thinks America is “inviting God’s judgment” and says our generation has “a prideful and arrogant attitude” for its growing support of marriage equality.  Meanwhile, BSA recently told the press it was reconsidering its ban on LGBT members and leaders that was put in place almost two years ago. They announced two weeks ago that they would not revise their policies.

In light of these statements, both Chick-Fil-A and BSA have faced protests and boycotts.  Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is vowing to fight the opening of any Chick-Fil-A in the city, Equality Illinois is organizing a nationwide protest, and The Jim Henson Company (best known for The Muppets) severed its ties with the company.  The BSA is facing similar problems.  Eagle Scouts, who oppose the ban, are returning their medals to BSA in protest. Multiple petitions also have surfaced to put pressure on the organization.

On the other side, Gap and Ray Ban have benefitted from politicizing their brands.  Gap recently released ads to target the homosexual communities as a part of their “Be One” campaign. Ray Ban also joined the movement with their “Never Hide” campaign, featuring a homosexual couple, in what appears to be the 50s or 60s, walking down the street while holding hands. Reactions to these ads did not create much fanfare, which can be seen as a reflection of the times. However, these brands maintained their popularity and strengthened their customer base when they mixed politics with their brands.

What’s the difference between Chick-Fil-A and BSA mixing politics with their brands versus Gap and Ray Ban’s outcomes? The answer lies not only in their message but how it was incorporated.  Chick-Fil-A and BSA spoke about sexuality issues that deemed a particular preference or orientation wrong, without taking into consideration that people with that orientation or preference are indeed an integral part of their audience and consumer base, while Gap and Ray Ban made sure clearly demonstrated that they have a working knowledge of their constituency and a respect for differences.

How do you determine whether or not it’s safe to mix controversial topics and politics with your brand? When deciding whether to mix or not mix, consider the  following:

  1. Know your audience.  Always be aware of your target audience and its demographics.  What hurt Chick-Fil-A’s and Boy Scouts of America’s brands was being unaware of who their audiences were.  According to a new Gallup survey, half of Americans support marriage equality.  This means there is a good chance many of these companies’ supporters and customers are a part of the LGBT community or support the LGBT community.  By politicizing their brands without conducting the proper research, Chick-Fil-A and Boy Scouts of America alienated a surprising (for them) number of consumers and supporters who do not support their views.
  2.  Be aware of how your actions reflect on your brand.  Dan Cathy’s statements about marriage equality would have undoubtedly caused controversy, whether he was speaking on his personal behalf or the behalf of his company, because his views are increasingly unpopular in society.  However, it would have done less damage to Chick-Fil-A’s brand because he would have been speaking and supporting conservative groups as a citizen and not as a representative of Chick-Fil-A.  The blatant issue is Dan Cathy saying that Chick-Fil-A supports traditional marriage, and the use of Chick-Fil-A profits to support conservative organizations that are against marriage equality.  As a result, the increasing supporters of marriage equality may choose not to dine at Chick-Fil-A because they do not want their money going to causes they do not support.
  3.  Whatever position you decide to take, show respect for differences.  To be clear, this does not mean to forfeit your beliefs.  It means you should not alienate or offend your audience who may disagree with you when mixing politics with your brand. Chick-Fil-A failed to do this when its president went on The Kenneth Coleman show to make his comments about inviting God’s judgment onto America and how he feels redefining marriage has affected his job as an employer.  His comments show an unwillingness to recognize the opinions of people who oppose his views, alienating his audience.  Gap and Ray Ban, however, have shown their respect for differing opinions.  Both brands included a variety of couples in their campaigns so their audience can identify with one of the many representations throughout their campaign.

As one of my favorite PR professionals Kelly Cutrone says, “If you’re going to get in the ring, babe, you better know how to box.”  This statement doesn’t mean simply knowing how to throw a right hook.  It refers to how to communicate, what the rules are and what the potential consequences may be, and what strategic approach or style to use in a given situation.  The same applies to politicizing your brand.  The decisions you make and the positions you take with your brand can stay with it forever. Do your research and have a working knowledge of your audience; your brand and image depends on it. 

About the blogger:

Reggie Myers is a Temple University student from New Jersey.  He is an aspiring public relations and event planning professional.  Reggie is set to graduate from Temple in January 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Strategic Communications.  You can find out more at


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