American Brands Abroad in the Age of Trump

Recently, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, promising to move the U.S. embassy to the city. The announcement dealt a blow to the idea of a future Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The news was widely condemned, and waves of protests spread across the Middle East and beyond

The State Department immediately warned Americans living abroad to exercise increased levels of vigilance. But what if you are charged with promoting a distinctly American brand in a region where any ties to America could be equated – for better or worse – with Trump and his foreign policy decision? Mere vigilance might not be enough.

Your risk profile

Unlike private citizens traveling or working abroad, “laying low” isn’t truly an option for American brands – you exist to sell your product to customers. That necessitates always communicating about the product even during times of political unrest. However, even if your brand “makes products, not politics,” that doesn’t mean your customers will view it that way. Traditional American brands are under increased threats for backlash and boycotts.

There is good news however, if an American company can stay out of the political fray. Evidence suggests that customers draw a distinction between the politics and policies of America and Americans. While Trump is viewed with doubt and apprehension in many countries – according to a 37-country survey conducted this summer by Pew Research Center, just 22 percent has confidence in Trump to do the right thing – America’s overall image benefits from a substantial reservoir of goodwill. In the global poll, a median of 58 percent say they have a favorable opinion of Americans.

When to weigh in

The question becomes, how does a brand stay in the category of “American” and not “America’s politics” when global issues threaten to bring protests to your doorstep? The answer is, as in most things, it depends. Sometimes, as was the case after violence in Charlottesville earlier this year, companies are forced to wade in to politics where they might otherwise not. When companies or brands do jump into the fray, it should be because they feel the issue is core to their values, it’s what their stakeholders (including employees) expect of them, and it’s an issue intrinsic to their bottom line.

Focus on the heart of the issue for your customers and franchisees

But, as we’ve explored before, it’s not going to make sense for a brand or company to weigh in on every issue that comes down the pike. Specifically, on the issue of Trump’s designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there is little to suggest that it is a policy most secular American companies are uniquely qualified to take on and that stakeholders would expect their favorite brand to do so. What they would expect is for an American company to provide a safe place to work and get the product they sell whether it’s, burgers or beer. Period. When that safety is jeopardized by protests or violence – for whatever reason – then you must weigh in, and it must be in a manner that narrowly and directly addresses concerns with those whom it impacts without getting into politics.

For example, if protests in Casablanca are blocking access to your store(s), then you must be swift in contacting franchisees, employees and customers in the region to let them know that in the interest of safety, stores are closed. Proactively, franchisees might want to hear from you about increased security measures you are taking on their behalf. But it’s not a reason to offer comment on the political decision that sparked the protest.

All politics is local

There is risk in overreacting. On global issues like this specifically, it’s critical to view them through the local – not U.S. – lens to accurately gauge the situation on the ground. Just because a U.S brand publicly supported political commentary in the U.S. by Trump doesn’t necessarily mean customers in Jordan are connecting the brand to Trump – and then to the Jerusalem policy announcement. But they might make that leap in a different market like Turkey (as an example). Local monitoring and intelligence gathering from your partners on the ground is critical in calibrating a response, should one be required.

Max Baucus is a senior policy advisor to Edelman and served as U.S Ambassador to China from 2014 – 2017 and in the US Senate from 1978 – 2013.