Corporate America's Political Gray Zone Is Disappearing

With a vengeful White House on one side and legions of furious customers and employees on the other, it's getting harder for brands to stay quietly in the middle.

It's getting harder and harder to be a boring, middle-of-the-road business in America, as this week's dustup between the Trump administration and Nordstrom has shown.

On the one side, you have a White House with no apparent reservations about taking direct shots at a company that has fallen into its bad books — whether through shipping jobs to Mexico, charging a lot for a next-generation fighter jet, or deciding not to sell the president's daughter's clothing brand.

On the other, you have consumers who've been furiously politicized, ready to delete your app, yell at you online, or boycott your stores if you don't live up to their expectations for political decency. Your employees, too, are getting testy. And let's not even get into the celebrities you pay to promote you.

With polarized media consumption driving an ever-bigger divide between consumers, "it’s becoming more difficult for brands to avoid taking a stand — those that sit on the sidelines risk missing out on important conversations, or even alienating consumers who seek a better alignment with their values," Shepherd Laughlin, director of trend forecasting at JWT Intelligence, told BuzzFeed News in an email.

But there are different kinds of taking a stand, and ideally for most corporations, such a stand shouldn't alienate whoever is on the other side of it. "Brands are trying to send signals that they empathize with their customers, without taking an explicit position that could lead to a boycott from the other side," said Laughlin.

In the trench warfare of consumer politics, Twitter campaigners have claimed some notable wins. The Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) group says it has persuaded big companies like Kellogg, HP, and Vanguard to block their online ads from appearing on — and therefore, funding — the alt-right news site Breitbart, whose former executive chair Steve Bannon is now Trump's chief strategist.

"Breitbart is radioactive to other businesses," said Nicholas Reville, an online activist that is working with Sleeping Giants. "It's not something you want to be associated with. They have a philosophy of exclusion."

The hashtag campaign #GrabYourWallet — which calls for boycotts on "any retailer that carried Trump products, with the goal of motivating those companies on the list to stop doing business with the Trump family" — takes some credit for the announcements last week by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom to stop carrying Ivanka Trump merchandise. While both cited weak sales, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Nordstrom's decision "was less about his family business than an attack on his daughter.” T.J. Maxx also cut back, instructing associates to throw away signs promoting her brand.

Shannon Coulter, the marketing professional behind #GrabYourWallet, said that while neither retailer gave the campaign credit for their decision to drop the brand, "I think the boycott worked," pointing out that the hashtag has been viewed more than 600 million times.

Other retailers such as Macy's and Amazon remain on the campaign's boycott list.

In case you missed it: #GrabYourWallet

For its part, Sleeping Giants maintains a running list of advertisers — now more than 800 long — that have confirmed they have blocked their ads from showing up on Breitbart.

Matt Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, said that while withdrawing ads isn't a direct statement for or against the Trump administration, it does suggest these brands see ethical issues with the views represented on Breitbart. "They need to be more connected to mainstream American values," said Quint.

@saks Hi there! Did you know you have ads on Breitbart, a racist, sexist website? @slpng_giants

Every action, of course, comes with an equal and opposite reaction, and that applies both to physics and the politics of 2017-era consumer activism.

In response to Kellogg pulling its ads, Brietbart's editor-in-chief said in a post that the cereal maker's move represents "an escalation in the war by leftist companies like Target and Allstate against conservative customers" and started its own petition to #DumpKelloggs, causing online sentiment about the brand to decline.

And while Nordstrom has said its move to pull Ivanka Trump merchandise was based on slumping sales, not consumer pressure, that didn't fly with the White House, with the president, his spokesperson, and a top adviser all taking swings at the retailer — and in one case, telling potential Ivanka customers to head to another retailer.

"Go buy it today, everybody," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News viewers, adding a line that would sting especially hard to a retailer that has had its business hit hard by e-commerce: "You can find it online."

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