How the Rules of Political Engagement Have Changed for Brands

How the Rules of Political Engagement Have Changed for Brands

Companies have to address political and cultural issues now more than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they should tackle everything that appears in the headlines, marketing executives said.

Nor are there clear rules for every situation that can arise, from calls to “cancel” endorsement deals to pressure on proposed legislation, the executives said, speaking during The Wall Street Journal’s CMO Network Summit.

Staying quiet during a raging consumer conversation is increasingly likely to send a message of its own, said Frank Cooper, global chief marketing officer at BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest money manager and a prominent corporate voice on issues such as the environment.

“Some people think that, oh, your CEO is either outspoken or silent, and then somehow a silent CEO is a safer place to be,” Mr. Cooper said. “But in my view being silent is also a moral choice…and more stakeholders, whether they’re employees, communities and sometimes even shareholders are calling people out for the silence.”

Employees should be a big factor when executives consider whether to speak out, said Richard Edelman, global chief executive at public-relations giant Edelman. “Don’t do it because it’s good for the brand; do it because it’s good for keeping your best people,” he said.

But marketers still have to judge which causes to take on, Mr. Edelman said, citing issues such as systemic racism and sustainability as key causes to engage with, and subjects such as gun legislations as riskier for corporations.

Companies that make mistakes when releasing a statement on social issues can find forgiveness with consumers and gain their trust more effectively than companies that don’t do anything in the first place, said Aline Santos, chief brand officer and chief diversity and inclusion officer at consumer-goods company Unilever PLC.

“The important thing here is to be totally transparent,” Ms. Santos said. “So if you made a mistake, be transparent, acknowledge your mistake—that is the best way to move forward.”

So-called cancel culture, in which companies face pressure to cut ties with other parties for a variety of reasons, is also presenting marketers with new dilemmas on a regular basis. CitigroupInc. made headlines earlier this year when the investment bank chose to keep pro golfer Justin Thomas on its endorsement roster after he used an antigay slur under his breath during a televised tournament play. Another sponsor, Ralph LaurenCorp. , cut ties with Mr. Thomas.

Even though dropping Mr. Thomas would have sent a clear message to consumers, Citigroup decided to work with the athlete to use his platform to fight discrimination instead, said Carla Hassan, chief marketing officer at Citigroup.

“In some ways, canceling someone or something might be a way of ending a conversation that quite frankly needs to be continued in a more productive way,” Ms. Hassan said.

In an interview with the Golf Channel on the day of the tournament, Mr. Thomas apologized for using the slur. “I’m extremely embarrassed,” he said. “It’s not who I am; it’s not the kind of person that I am.”

Marketers are also working through the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, trying to encourage vaccinations as well as understand the changes it brought to consumer behavior.

The vaccination campaign developed in part by the Ad Council, a nonprofit that facilitates ad campaigns promoting various causes, has entered “hand-to-hand combat mode” to swing the vaccine hesitant toward vaccination, said Lisa Sherman, the group’s president and CEO.

After promoting messages with a broader reach in the campaign’s earlier stages, the effort has become increasingly targeted to better reach particular groups where vaccine hesitancy remains strong, she said. While the strategy continues to revolve around using trusted messengers and community organizations, it now involves “much more surgical” targeted advertising, for example, Ms. Sherman said.

New consumer habits developed during the pandemic are likely to continue, according to research presented by Michael J. Wolf, CEO of consulting firm Activate Inc.

People will continue to shop for clothes, groceries, and beauty and grooming products online more than they did before the pandemic, Mr. Wolf said, citing the research.

“They started online shopping during Covid-19 and they’re hooked,” he said of the newcomers to e-commerce.

The good news for marketers that haven’t yet capitalized is that during the pandemic, consumers tried online retailers they hadn’t used before, and roughly two-thirds are still interested in trying new ones, Mr. Wolf said.

Write to Katie Deighton at, Ann-Marie Alcántara at and Nat Ives at

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