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What to do when a hate group co-opts your brand

By Lizz Kannenberg / April 23, 2019

Imagine your brand going from being a quirky mainstay of lawn parties and BBQs to a sudden association with white nationalist rallies. That’s what happened when hundreds of alt-right marchers descended on Charlottesville carrying lit TIKI Brand torches in 2017. While the Wisconsin-based company was quick to denounce the group’s use of its products on social, the initial damage was already done.

Politics is business now. Even making coffee in the morning can become a partisan act. So what do you do when your brand gets co-opted by the wrong audience? When everything you’ve worked to stand for becomes the unofficial sponsor of everything you stand against?

Staying out of the political fray isn’t an option anymore. The moment unwanted support reaches the mainstream, brands have to be prepared to take a crystal clear stance. Instead of waiting for the storm to blow over or, worse, for everything to spiral out of control, brands have to proactively respond with a crisis management strategy that prioritizes transparency and authenticity.

The new reality

No brand is safe from being co-opted for bad intentions.

Co-opting America’s most beloved brands is one way hate groups strive for normalcy. Aligning themselves with popular brands helps political fringe groups leverage that public recognition (and media coverage) to reach a larger audience while humanizing their movement.

Matthew Heimbach, chairman of right-wing group The Traditionalist Workers Party, reinforced that this brand hijacking behavior isn’t going to change anytime soon. Heimbach told The Washington Post, “We have to prove that we are a reliable economic, social and political bloc within American politics.”

The far-right has declared support for dozens of brands—much to those brands’ dismay—including New Balance, Papa John’s and even Depeche Mode as the official shoe, pizza or band of the movement.

Companies like TIKI Brand are unwitting bystanders, swept into politically charged moments. But some brands catch the admiration of hate groups after their leadership voices support for contentious policies. New Balance, for example, was appointed the “official shoes of white people” after an executive of the shoe company publicly commended the President’s stance on trade—setting off a firestorm of responses from across the political spectrum. While liberals shared photos and Tweets trashing their New Balances and conservative fans shared support, white nationalists embraced them.

A proactive approach

There’s nothing easy about regaining control in a crisis. What’s easier is proactively protecting your brand and your values.

Patagonia recently decided to get selective about who they sell to. To save their custom-branded vests from becoming the uniform of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the outdoors brand changed its policy for corporate sales clients. The policy shift means a renewed focus on co-branding with like-minded companies, committed to supporting causes like community and the environment.

The change aligns with the brand’s mission: “We’re in the business to save the planet.” That’s exactly the kind of action most people not only want, but have come to expect from brands today—and it’s hard to hijack a brand that’s made their values this central. In fact, 72% of consumers expect brands to be positive contributors to society.

When working proactively, consider your brand’s biggest advocates and concentrate on cultivating a powerful customer community. There’s no better defense than a front of passionate consumers ready to stick up for the brands they believe in. Think of focusing on advocacy like taking out an insurance policy for future crises.

Taking a proactive approach helps brands engage their target audiences sooner. It solves two issues companies face in the wake of a crisis: the demand for transparency and the pressure to speak.

Take back the conversation

For some brands, it’s too late to take a proactive approach. And the hostility of any kind of crisis—whether it’s national media attention or gossip—makes it hard to regain control of the conversation to communicate your message. That’s where your content strategy comes in.

In 2016, when a federal judge asked Apple to help the FBI unlock an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter, a lot of media attention was directed toward the brand’s ethics. Rather than let everyone else control the conversation, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a public letter detailing the situation and the company’s stance.

This put the brand back in the driver’s seat. Conversation about the situation shifted because of Cook’s clear and honest letter. That’s the power of thoughtful, authentic content.

Now remember those loyal advocates I mentioned earlier? This is the point in the crisis response where you activate them, making a conscious effort to engage with them. Admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility goes hand in hand with building a strong community of advocates. It’s part of the process of creating customers who may one day be your strongest line of defense in today’s culture wars.

Protect what you stand for

You’ve built your brand with love. It’s a business, but every aspect of it—the look, the feel, the voice, the appeal—you’ve crafted for the perfect audience. But if these examples show us anything, it’s how quickly and easily others can take control of your brand’s message—and how hard it can be to win it back.

It’s not clear how much the far right’s endorsement of TIKI Brand, New Balance and other brands has impacted company sales. But when you consider the time and effort devoted to managing these crises—resources that could have been spent elsewhere—the loss is clear.

The reality of this situation is that dealing with a crisis isn’t always going to be a proactive win. Luckily, we live in an age saturated with real-time communication channels. The choice of how to use them is yours.

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg is the Director of Brand Strategy at Sprout Social. Kannenberg is a career strategist and creative lead for social content. She has developed and executed social content campaigns for CPG, automotive, alc/bev, government and lifestyle clients by creating credible, compelling conversations between brands and communities. Offline she can usually be found playing bass in an indie rock band or out exploring with her husband and young son.
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