Despite the fact that most major US companies do some type of political advocacy behind the scenes, most brands don’t want to take public political positions for fear of alienating existing and potential customers. But in the Trump era, the neutral ground is disappearing.
The events of the past two days are an example. Following Trump’s executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim countries, ride-sharing service Lyft made a strong statement against the ban and pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU. By contrast Uber ended surge pricing on rides from the airport and appeared to be capitalizing on a New York taxi strike in support of protesters who had massed at JFK.
An Uber spokesperson denied this was the case. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who criticized Trump in the past but more recently became a member of his CEO advisory board, made a relatively tepid statement that didn’t explicitly condemn the ban:
I understand that many people internally and externally may not agree with that decision, and that’s OK. It’s the magic of living in America that people are free to disagree. But whatever your view please know that I’ve always believed in principled confrontation and just change; and have never shied away (maybe to my detriment) from fighting for what’s right.
As a result of this attempt at neutrality and the company’s perceived attempt to take advantage of the taxi strike there’s now a #deleteUber movement. At this moment the contrast between Uber and its chief rival Lyft could not be more stark — with corporate ethics/politics as the competitive differentiator.
Whether Uber will suffer for its attempt not to take sides remains to be seen. However, the case is illustrative of the perils ahead for brands and companies that seek to avoid ruffling feathers and remain neutral on contentious issues.
Ironically, Kalanick was one of only two of Trump’s CEO advisors to say anything public about the refugee ban. The other was Elon Musk. The other members of the group, which include the CEOs of Disney, Pepsi and IBM, remained silent. They too risk the ire of consumer-activists.
Other tech-company executives such as Tim Cook, Reed Hastings, Satya Nadella, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, among others, spoke out against the ban. Google co-founder Sergey Brin joined a protest at the San Francisco airport (Brin was an immigrant as a child). It was also noted in several articles that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Microsoft’s Nadella is also an Indian immigrant.
Separate from their politics or public positions, brands also appear to be at risk if they become associated with Trump. A recent example is L.L .Bean. Trump encouraged people to buy L. L. Bean products in a Tweet, which generated an almost immediate social media backlash.
An investigation of the impact of Trump Twitter mentions of brands, whether positive or negative, found that social sentiment around those brands declines. This was documented in cases of General Motors, Walmart, Toyota, L.L. Bean, Ford and Boeing.
Given the highly charged political environment, which shows no signs of dissipating, brands and companies are probably going to need to take positions and be ready to express them — for better or worse — or have their silence or attempts at neutrality interpreted against them.
Postscript: In the wake of #DeleteUber, CEO Kalanick has now pledged to establish a $3 million fund for drivers who are impacted by the Trump refugee ban. He also made a stronger statement, calling the ban “unjust.”