Associating Your Brand with a Cause: Content Marketing and Politics

old painting of candidate speaking to crowdContent marketing and politics have long held an interesting relationship. In the past, brands would not publicly tie themselves to any but the safest of causes, belief systems that weren’t issues but expected ideals. If a brand was politically active, it was through lobbyists who were there not for ideals but to represent a company’s business interests. Even today, companies are careful about not showing public support for any controversial causes, often opting to invest instead in philanthropic ventures to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless if they involve themselves in non-profits.

However, the value of taking a stand as part of your content marketing strategy cannot be overstated, but neither can the risk. Deciding whether or not to invest in taking a stand requires heavy research on your customer base, and in-depth knowledge of what they will tolerate and what they will not. If you miscalculate, you risk alienating your core audience, but if you play your cards right you can realize massive profits. This guide should help walk you through what you need to do if you wish to dedicate marketing resources towards activism. Final word of warning: this should never, EVER be your core marketing strategy. Courting controversy should be a supplement to an already established content marketing strategy intended to take things to the next level.

Separate Yourself From Business Values

This is the very first thing you must do: learn to recognize the difference between corporate values and personal values. For a marketer, this is just another day on the job, but for a business owner this may be difficult. It is YOUR company after all, you may be thinking that company values you should reflect your values. Although your values are what inspired you to provide whatever product or service you are offering to the community, there are many causes that are unrelated to that product that you need to read lightly on.

Never lose sight of the fact that your business is still a business and not a personal megaphone. Thus if you find yourself thinking about posting on your company blog about an issue that is very personal to a lot of people, ask yourself: if one of your employees posted what you’re about to post, how would you respond? Does it truly reflect the values and beliefs you want your company to be known for? Remember that if you do your job correctly, the views you project will be forever affiliated with your business. Make sure you do not find your company’s success stonewalled by an opinion expressed five years ago.

Avoid the Bandwagon: Relevancy and Timing

drawn wooden bandwagonWhile fighting for a cause people care about is important and can yield massive dividends, any positive effect is lost if you appear just to be following the herd. You want to be seen as a champion, not a follower, and you certainly want to not be obvious about the fact that you are latching onto a cause for gain. Even if your feelings are sincere, and you genuinely believe the cause perfectly aligns with your company objectives, trumpeting that fact to the masses when there is no apparent reason to do so will appear to be a shameless attention grab. Looking like you are making a shameless grab for attention can, depending on the cause, be just as dangerous as picking the wrong cause or the wrong side.

So, when you are making content for a cause, first make sure it holds relevance to your established company values. You are not going to be able to inject yourself into every discussion: and that is OK. Part of the reason this works is for the same reason content marketing works: it makes your brand seem more human. Just like a person, your company is going to have issues it feels strongly about, and issues it does not wish to speak up on. People never condemn a business for being silent on a matter irrelevant to them. That being said, if it is irrelevant to your company, but the news is big enough, there is nothing wrong with offering a symbolic gesture of support. Once again, think of your company as if it were a person.

Just as you want the cause to be relevant, timing is also an issue. It is good practice to have a news feed dedicated to issues you want your business to be closely tied to, and wait for big news to break in that field. The moment the news breaks, you’ll have to be quick to get relevant content out there. If you wait too long and the buzz dies down, your content will not produce the desired impact. Even worse is coming in late while the issue is still relevant. During this narrow band where you show up late, but everybody is still talking about it, is when you are most likely to be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. As such, if you’re going to gear some of your content towards the issue of the day, and you find you’re coming in late, either add something new to the discussion or let it go.

Choose Carefully: Avoid the Red Zone

colorful meter - green yellow orange redSo, something has come up in the news. You believe that your company’s history and culture is related enough to the issue to speak out. You have staff eager to put pen to paper and churn out some great content that will add to the debate and let everybody know where you stand. However, there is still one final question you have to ask – just how bad is the debate? Remember what I said earlier about how you do not want to associate your brand with the wrong viewpoint? This becomes even more important if the debate is contentious.

I have a simple system for organizing things. Note the system is entirely subjective, and where an issue falls for you ultimately depends on who your target market is and state of the world at the time. A red zone issue today may end up becoming a green zone issue in the future. This is why, as with any other aspect of content marketing, it is essential you know your audience before you begin. The last thing you want to do is offend your core customer base thinking you were appealing to them.

  • Green Zone: These are safe issues to comment on. Sometimes the safety comes from an obvious expectation of how you should feel, other times it comes from the fact that no matter what stance you take – nobody will be offended. Issues that fall in the green zone are things like free speech or supporting veterans. You probably already support these things, and people expect you to support these things. This also means there isn’t a whole lot of potential gain to be had from an issue in the green zone compared to others, since your voice will just be one member of a chorus saying the same thing. That being said, it can be a good way to secure customer loyalty.
  • Yellow Zone: These issues are a little more risky. While the debate is largely civilized, it is still important to many people. Furthermore, unlike a green zone issue there is no clear, safe position to take. However, if you guess wrong, you can weather the damage and probably won’t tank your business. Another advantage of yellow-zone issues is that if you guess wrong, you may end up drawing in a whole other customer base in support. Even if you lose customers, you will not draw the kind of ire that more serious issues would cause.
  • Orange Zone: This is when we start moving into genuinely dangerous territory. These are issues people feel strongly about, and misreading your customer base will cost your company dearly. Saying the wrong thing or taking the wrong side using your business’s voice will cause people to hold a grudge, and if the foul-up is bad enough a rebrand will become your only hope. However, what distinguishes ‘orange’ issues from ‘red’ issues is that it is possible to navigate successfully, and few make the attempt. Therefore, if you can succeed, your brand will get better exposure than you could have ever dreamed of with any other matter on any other issue, but failure can be catastrophic and take years to recover from. Note that miscalculation on an orange zone issue may also put employees at risk of having personal details leaked depending on what issue it is: my advice is to keep back unless you are incredibly confident.
  • Red Zone: Stay away from a red zone issue. Don’t even try to navigate it successfully, you will almost certainly fail. These are the issues that some of your customers are willing to kill one another over, so it’d be even more disastrous if you should declare yourself to be against them as well. Having your company take a stand on a red zone issue not only potentially costs you customers, you may find your employees being harassed, death threats in your inbox, and become subject to a number of attacks from hackers. This is what ultimately distinguishes red zone issues from orange zone issues – whether or not you’ll find it worthwhile to invest in armed guards afterward.

Figuring out where an issue falls on this scale requires diligent research on the issue in question. If you are not sure where the matter stands then seek out information. Going in under an anonymous identity, locate message boards and meet-ups for people who stand for the same thing you are considering having your company stand for. Remain dispassionate, and remember that you are trying to determine how volatile the conversation is normally. A good rule of thumb: if people are willing to kill and die for it, stay away. Consider this part of your market research: something that any good content marketing tactic should have anyway.

In Conclusion…

Creating a content marketing campaign for the purposes of flirting with controversy is very much a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. This is likely why most marketers do not attempt it: we live in a very risk averse world. That aversion to risk is the reason this article is void of examples. Unlike general content marketing, I will not claim that ‘soapbox marketing’ is necessary in a modern business strategy: you can be incredibly successful without it. However, if you do choose to go down this road, hopefully the guide above will guide you to success rather than ruin.