In divided America, US companies must navigate a minefield

Firms need to manage pro-Trump or anti-Trump perceptions to avoid backlash from customers

WASHINGTON • Starbucks promises to hire 10,000 refugees? President Donald Trump's supporters call for a boycott. Uber allegedly takes advantage of the President's anti-immigration decree to drum up business? Users unsubscribe from the app en masse.

Mr Trump's election has laid bare the deep divisions in American society, a discord that has forced many businesses to walk a fine line to avoid alienating consumers.

"Companies that were working very hard to stay neutral no longer can," said brand expert Bruce Turkel. "The biggest problem is that anything they say can be misinterpreted."

Sportswear manufacturer New Balance, for instance, found itself embroiled in controversy after its chief executive Matt LeBretton voiced optimism following the election. "We feel things are going to move in the right direction," he said in an interview, prompting outrage on Twitter, where users called for a massive boycott of the sneaker company, forcing the brand into damage control.

"From the people who make our shoes to the people who wear them, we believe in acting with the utmost integrity and we welcome all walks of life," the company said.

Beverage giant PepsiCo faced similar backlash from the opposite camp. Two days after the election, the company's chief executive Indra Nooyi said her employees "were all in mourning".

WALKING A FINE LINE

Companies that were working very hard to stay neutral no longer can. The biggest problem is anything they say can be misinterpreted.

BRAND EXPERT BRUCE TURKEL, on firms trying to avoid alienating consumers.

The retaliation came instantly: "It's probably a good time to pass on the Pepsi products," conservative site The Gateway Pundit wrote.

Calls for boycotts often proliferate on Internet forums such as Reddit and 4Chan, as well as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Others originate from more structured protests.

The Grab Your Wallet website, launched last October, lists companies suspected of favouring Mr Trump, either because their leaders contributed to the real estate billionaire's campaign or because they do business with the Trump family.

The long "boycott" list includes department store Macy's, retail giant Walmart and beer brand Yuengling.

"Brands have always been political, but now consumers can see more of this activity and are making decisions based on this information," the site's co-founder Shannon Coulter says.

The impact of boycott campaigns is difficult to evaluate, however, because calls to blacklist specific companies tend to get lost in the frenzy of social media.

"Consumers have an incredibly short memory," marketing expert Merry Carole Powers said.

Still, some companies fear losing customers by staying silent.

Nordstrom, a chain of department stores, recently announced it would drop the Ivanka Trump clothing line belonging to the President's elder daughter.

Last Friday, the chief executive officer of Cargill, the largest closely held US company, became the latest corporate leader to voice concerns about Mr Trump's executive order to curb immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries and trade protectionism.

In a speech and an opinion column in the Huffington Post, Mr David MacLennan warned of the economic dangers posed by curbs to legal immigration. He also said that trade protectionism risks creating food shortages and even sparking conflict.

"There's no margin in the middle," says Mr Turkel, who recently wrote the book All About Them, focused on company branding.

"If you stay quiet, you get nothing out of it. You have to figure out who your audience is and what are their values."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'In divided America, US companies must navigate a minefield'. Print Edition | Subscribe