Pluses and Perils of Going Political (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

In a time when almost everything seems hyperpolitical, is it any surprise that business marketing is increasingly pulled in too?

There is more pressure for company leaders to speak out on political issues. According to a 2017 survey of both senior executives and consumers (conducted by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research and reported in the Harvard Business Review), 46 percent of big-company executives prefer that companies speak out on issues such as climate change, gun control and immigration; that is up 10 percentage points compared with 2014.

On the consumer side, Sprout Social, a software company, claims in a new study that 59 percent of consumers feel it’s important for CEOs to engage with them and their social-media followers about their political views. Nearly half (44 percent) said they would purchase more from a brand that took a stand on issues with which they agree.

Ah, but what about the other side? According to that same Sprout survey, 53 percent of respondents said they would purchase less from the company if they don’t agree with a CEO’s view. It wouldn’t stop there, either. Other reactions would include warning family and friends about the company (38 percent), boycotting it (33 percent) and criticizing it publicly (20 percent).

That’s a pretty sharp divide between upside and downside. Perhaps that is the reason big-company marketing leaders remain more than a little nervous about their brands serving as political messengers.

The CMO Survey, conducted through Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is the longest-running survey dedicated to understanding the field of marketing. The latest results show that only one in six marketing leaders (17 percent) think it’s appropriate for their brand to take a stance on politically charged issues. Professor Christine Moorman, the CMO Survey director, said, “It appears marketers are more concerned about the potential downside to political activism than they are excited about the possible benefits. But in an era when CEO activism is more common than ever, this is something marketing leaders should expect to grapple with much more frequently.”

Having served as a corporate marketing and public relations leader myself — and spending a lot of time with executives these days — I can reliably report that most do indeed fear the downside more than they imagine the upside.

Nevertheless, in today’s messaging environment there is less delineation between the professional and the personal. That isn’t always a bad thing. More of today’s consumers (and workers) want to know what your organization and its leadership are all about. You just had better be ready to walk the talk.

You are likely familiar with Mark Cuban, the brash billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and “Shark Tank” TV star. In recent months Cuban has been sharing with multiple news outlets his potential interest in running for president — and has been harshly critical of President Trump (the feeling is apparently mutual). Earlier this month, a bombshell story in Sports Illustrated revealed a long history of sexual misconduct, domestic abuse and look-the-other-way behavior in the Mavericks organization.

Cuban himself was not named, but his CEO Terdema Ussery and a writer for were. As Sam Amick wrote in USA Today, “Cuban should have known that his former CEO had a history of inappropriate workplace behavior dating back to 1998.”

Bad behavior is not a partisan political issue, of course. We should all be able to agree on that. Yet as Cuban has built his personal brand and advanced his political ambitions, he also made his companies more vulnerable to charges of inconsistency. I imagine many Mavericks employees and fans have a very different feeling today than they did a couple of weeks ago.

None of this means that leaders should not speak out. I recommend, however, that you pick your battles. Make sure your political stance is consistent with the corporate brand and values, pay attention internally and don’t go out of your way to alienate substantial chunks of the market.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a consultant, coach and professional speaker as well as a consulting principal with DSG. See, email him at and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.