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Translating Trump

100 Days in the (Brand) Wilderness

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The first 100 days of President Trump’s administration have been a journey into uncharted territory for those in charge of carrying out his priorities, those seeking to influence those priorities and the media reporting on it all. Perhaps no one has stood to benefit or lose more than Trump himself — and not just as a person, but as a commercial brand. As NPR recently reported, the Trump brand’s reputation has seen a steady uptick since August (though it’s still on the low end).

But how have other brands fared in this historic 100-day window? I recently had an opportunity to sit down with marketing leaders from a broad cross-section of sectors and industries to ask them this very question. Here’s what they have learned.

Lesson #1: Really get to know the people who are keeping the lights on: your customers and employees. Try to understand their different perspectives. Ask questions, listen, observe.

The past 100 days have shown many brands the hard way that they’ve lost touch with their customers. It’s easy to do if you never get out and talk to them, where they are. One branding expert I spoke with aptly put it this way: If you’re on the West Coast, you expect your toilet paper to be delivered by drone. If you are on the East Coast, you expect it to be delivered personally, one roll at a time. Everyone else buys it by the case and loads it into their minivan. Brand leaders must know and understand the vast array of viewpoints held by their customers before they can hope to win hearts and minds.

Case in point: One media company realized they had lost touch with a key customer segment. So what did they do about it? They got out of their New York City offices and into the places where most of their consumers live. And when they did, they realized they had been going about engaging that audience all wrong. Worse still, they had probably (unintentionally) been offending them in the process.

Lesson #2: Inevitably brands will be forced to answer the question “What do you stand for?” Think through the possible answers now, not when you are in the hot seat.

There has been no more telling moment in the past 100 days to illustrate this point than Trump’s proposed immigration ban, announced a mere eight days into his presidency. The executive order quickly sent many companies — particularly those in the tech sector — into a decision-making vortex, trying to determine what it meant for employees and their businesses, as well as how to calibrate a response to the controversial order.

For many brands, the pressure to weigh in didn’t come from the media, government or anyone external — it came from within. More specifically, employees expected their employer to publicly denounce (to varying degrees) the controversial decision to temporarily ban select groups of people from entering the United States. The result? A moment where everyone was ready to “face the same direction,” as one global manufacturing brand leader put it.

A focused conversation with the key decision makers within your organization to answer the following questions can help when the spotlight turns to your brand: What are your core values? How are you living them? What do your customers and employees expect from you? If that is the starting point for decisions you make as a brand – decision about whether to weigh in on the issue du jour, or to overhaul a company policy on any number of issues from diversity and inclusion, to sustainability and beyond – then those decisions get easier to make.

For the companies that were most vocal against the immigration ban, those that fared best reputationally were the ones whose customers and employees immediately recognized the response as genuine and what they’d expect from the brand or company (even if they disagreed).

Lesson #3: Sometimes, it’s just about Cheetos. Or not. Know the difference.  As Saturday Night Live so aptly characterized, at the end of the day, sometimes (most of the time) your job as a brand is to deliver a product or service to your customers without a side of advocacy. Full stop.

It’s not going to make sense for a brand or company to weigh in on every issue that comes down the pike. But there are going to be those issues that not only align with your core values, but also are ones you are uniquely qualified to take on. How many people hash out a disagreement over a beer? Heineken UK (a client) is betting a lot of you do. Or, a more serious example: Brands might decide it makes sense to take a position — and make a difference — on the issue of immigration. For the betterment of society, but also their businesses. And that intersection — good for the community and the business—is the sweet spot every brand needs to aim for to have a lasting, positive impact.

Whether you view the past 100 days as a new frontier or uncertain wilderness, what is certain is brands interested in harnessing this moment in time to effect change in the world have immense opportunity. But only if the action they take is true to who they are in both words and deeds. Otherwise brands risk being viewed as using a societal issue or political statement to simply sell more beer, shoes and TVs. And no one is buying that.

Russell Dubner is president and chief executive officer, Edelman U.S.

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