Regardless of political leanings, it’s a difficult time to be a brand or retailer in the United States. Heightened tensions on both sides of the aisle have led to an environment where any slight — whether real or perceived — can lead to a firestorm of reactions, and ultimately jeopardize not only a company’s image but its bottom line as well.
Consumers are now armed with social media tools that allow them to voice concerns with the push of a button, and it certainly takes less time to write a tweet than it does to fact-check the subject of its concerns. Add to that a sitting president who’s not only comfortable but enthusiastic about naming brands that have disappointed or pleased him, and you’ve got an unprecedented array of challenges that are as difficult to navigate as they are important to understand.
“There’s no doubt that we’re in a more polarized environment than we were even six months ago,” Greg Portell, lead partner in the retail practice of global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, told Retail Dive. “But what makes it more challenging is that the speed of the input has been accelerated. In the past, you had to write a letter, or talk to friends. Now you just write a post. Consumers are all teenagers with car keys: They have this new tool, and they’re using it, sometimes for the silliest possible purposes.”
Speed of digital response isn’t the only innovation to directly impact the consumer/brand relationship. Ben Smithee, CEO of The Smithee Group, a consumer consultancy specializing in millennial marketing, says that swift reactions go hand-in-hand with the internet’s ability to amplify those reactions. “The internet is the reason that things happen so quickly,” he told Retail Dive. “Brands have always had negative PR, but the social web, even more than the internet, is what causes brands to fear, because of both the speed and the scalability.”
For retailers, this means that in addition to excelling in the more traditional areas of sales and customer service, they must also become tech-savvy diplomats, capable of recognizing and diffusing complex situations before they have the chance to do real damage. It's especially critical for retailers to be able to do this in today's current climate, because customers are more likely than ever to abandon a brand that's disappointed them and find a similar product elsewhere. The same internet that allows customers to complain at 3:00 a.m. also allows them to shop wherever they choose. Retailers can no longer depend on geography for their customer base, and must now vie for customer loyalty at every opportunity.
Fortunately, experts have established some basic guidelines that can keep retailers from becoming easy victims of social media controversies. It all begins with building a strategy in advance of a crisis, arming your team with the tools they need to address issues as they arise, and remembering these words from Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "This above all: to thine own self be true."
Brand identity in the internet age
Brands must first endeavor for authenticity at every turn. Smithee points out that one post on Instagram could be seen or shared thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times before a company has the opportunity to react. “Perception matters, until the right person gets a hold of your brand,” Smithee said. “Then your authenticity had better stand up.”
In order for a retailer to be fully authentic (and not just give the appearance of authenticity), it must know itself, and be able to clearly communicate its identity within its own ranks. “One of the biggest things you have to do is communicate your core message internally across your brand,” Smithee said. “If you can’t do that, there’s no way you can communicate that to your public. Once you nail that, everything else is easy. Then you can say ‘Does this fit our brand?’ and ask who your brand is.”
Smithee says that if, for example, you know your brand is ethical and moral and spiritual, then anyone who questions your viewpoint can look at those guidelines. “Most people, most small brands, have not put any thought into this,” Smithees said. “But a big brand has thought about this.”
Once a brand is able to define itself internally, then it also has to understand and communicate with its customers, because they are stewards of a company’s identity as much as they are consumers of it. Customers who have developed an intimate relationship with a retailer will feel very strongly about what the brand should stand for, and how the organization should react.
“Businesses no longer own their brand identity in the age of social media,” Julia Fowler, co-founder of retail technology and analysis platform EDITED, told Retail Dive. “Make one mistake and it can literally cost you millions, and unleash a backlash against your company.”
In light of today’s polarized political landscape, one important aspect of many consumers’ identities is their point of view. A person’s choice of political candidate — including their stance on a variety of issues — is central to self-definition. Consequently, many customers want the brands they associate with to support and uphold a corresponding system of beliefs.
“This is about making sure you have an authentic link between your brand, your consumer and the issues,” said Portell. “You need an actual brand. You need to build a point of view and you need to build an edge. It doesn’t matter which side brands want to fight on. But it has to be matched to their consumer base.”
Portell says that apparel brands in particular have been loathe to take political risks. “Apparel brands are kind of boring when it comes to social issues,” he said. “It’s kind of striking that apparel and lifestyle brands are really sitting on the sidelines on this issue.” That said, Portell admits it’s not easy for some brands to take a stand. “The challenge that companies face is that they need to have the strength of marketing to react when something happens."
Plus-size apparel chain Lane Bryant is an interesting exception, Portell said. "It’s a social issue about how women are portrayed, and about what ‘good’ looks like. It’s not a controversial point of view. But compare that to the issue that Lululemon had when they said they don’t want you to shop there. They got buried. If they had a prepared team, and were ready to handle the topic, they would have been able to deal with it. For a company that’s smaller and not as well-staffed, they don’t have as many dollars to spend on the capacity for response."
Still, staying out of the conversation altogether is becoming less and less of an option. “I think Nordstrom and Macy’s initially shot themselves in the foot by trying to claim they were apolitical,” said Shannon Coulter, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based boutique marketing and communications agency DoubleKnown Communications and founder of the #GrabYourWallet campaign, which encourages consumers to boycott companies associated with Donald Trump and his family. “That’s not what women wanted to hear in the wake of Donald’s hot mic remarks. What resonated at the time were short, conversational messages of how important respect is, such as the ‘Tic Tac respects all women’ tweet. I do think it was wise of Nordstrom, though to keep the emphasis on sales performance when they dropped the Ivanka line. No businessperson could bedgrudge that decision.” (While Nordstrom's formal statement on dropping the line cited poor sales, the #GrabYourWallet movement nevertheless hailed the retailer's decision as a victory.)
For Coulter, brands also need to do more than release formal statements, which rarely land well and, she says, feel too much like edicts being issued from on high and disconnected from the real conversation.
“Brands like [personal beauty products company] Dove have a lot to teach retailers about how to approach things with more empathy and authenticity,” Coulter told Retail Dive. “I think today there’s more motivation than ever for companies to develop a set of values that goes beyond just selling stuff or continuing a family legacy. Being generic or noncommittal feels too much like a lack of transparency to the consumer these days, and it really doesn’t fly with millennials in particular. That’s why brands like MM.LaFleur are starting to eat department stores’ lunch. They’re not afraid to take risks and they listen to their customers.”
Savvy brands will see taking a stand as a chance to connect on a deeper level with their customer base. However, many companies are skittish about taking sides.
“I think this is a time where there is a role for fashion brands to have a voice,” said Portell. “They have an opportunity to gain a role and earn media and take a stand for what they think is right, but they are noticeably silent in the dialog. Clearly, there is an emotional cliff. You can’t get in partially. So as soon as, say, Kate Spade New York fires off a point of view, the reaction will be fast and sustained — and the problem is, most brands are so bare bones that they don’t have the capabilities to put up a fair fight. It’s a criticism not of what they want to do, but what they can do.”
Nevertheless, Coulter says that most businesses have already taken a side, and educated consumers are making an effort to explore the ethics of brands for themselves, whether the brand wants them to or not.
“A lot of people are framing today’s landscape as a question of whether or not brands should be political,” said Coulter. “I see it more as a situation where consumers are beginning to understand just how political brands have been all along. For instance, consumers can now look up a C-suite or board member’s political contributions with a few keystrokes. That, too, is a part of how more consumers perceive a brand these days.”
Although it seems that coming down on one side or another carries economic risks, Portell questions the materiality of some of the protests. “People still have to buy, and so there is a lot more noise and hype than actual economic impact,” he said. “And we don’t track that impact, except for when businesses use it as an excuse for underperformance. At which point it seems like convenient scapegoating.”
Portell explains that if a company’s losses are directly tied to a particular boycott, then there are a few scenarios. “Either it’s a series of one-off errors, which could take you down for a quarter or two, like with American Apparel,” he said. “Or it’s like Abercrombie, which shows a fundamental disconnect with their core belief. They wanted to sell sex, and it fell on ears that were not interested in that message anymore. And that’s a misstep with consumers. Or it’s a fundamental flaw, where you did something wrong and then you got caught. Any child labor issue falls into this category. So the corrective actions for these brands is very different.”
It’s also worth noting that when a company is facing a serious issue, Smithee says it’s even more critical that the brand take ownership of the conversation. One example is the recent boycott of outerwear brand Canada Goose, led by animal rights activists, because of the brand's use of coyote fur on its hoods. “Canada Goose is doing a horrible job,” said Smithee. “We’re still seeing more press about the boycott than we are about the brand. It’s a question how quickly things can stir up. And it’s a question of how long it takes to stir things back down. Have a presence in the conversation. Especially when it’s a difficult conversation.”
How to navigate treacherous territory
So how do companies negotiate consumer relations in an uncertain and reactionary world? By listening to their customers, using available digital tools and being prepared for a crisis, should one arise.
“Brands need to stop fearing social media and viewing it as some sort of a threat,” Coulter said. “That’s only going to alienate customers further, and make companies sound tone-deaf. It’s shocking how many brands still use social media in a very one-way, broadcast-only style instead of treating it as a valuable, always-on focus group. Just listening more works wonders.”
Another important goal for apparel brands should be diversity — not simply for the outward-facing optics, but for the insight diversity brings to a staff.
“Honestly, I think the single most effective thing consumer brands can do is get more women into senior executive roles,” Coulter said. “So many retailers rely on women as their core customer base, but when you look at their leadership teams, they’re still primarily men. That’s only going to get increasingly problematic as time goes on.”
In addition, brands need to be flexible enough to make course corrections and adjustments in order to correct problems as they arise, says Smithee. They also need to make sure their adjustments are authentic. Smithee uses the example of customer service. “If your customer service is just a marketing tactic, in today’s world, you will get caught."
Ultimately, brands need to understand that while they can hope for the best, they must also prepare for the worst.
"The only way to prepare for a problem is take it seriously," said Smithee. "And then some of it is dumb luck. You hope you never have to get into this issue, and then you have to know how to pick your battles. Like training kids to respond to a fire alarm. Train your digital team for worst-case scenarios.”