In no uncertain terms, B2B copywriter and product marketing consultant Nandini Jammi expresses the belief that these days, no brand can survive as a neutral brand.

“This is 2018, the year brands became a proxy for the American political battleground,” Jammi wrote on Medium.com.

In her Medium.com article, Jammi took FedEx to task for its response to demands that it cuts ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the aftermath of this year’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Despite a massive FedEx boycott, the shipping company retains its discount program for NRA members. Jammi called FedEx’s reaction to the boycott an “epic” screw-up.

“This should have been easy. FedEx had a chance to be on the right side of history and make an easy buck riding on the back of a PR opportunity,” Jammi wrote. “Instead, they’re now locked into a boycott led by a child who survived a school shooting.”

During a session at &THEN in Las Vegas, Jammi, co-founder of Sleeping Giants, an activist organization seeking to stamp out racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news websites, and Frank Grillo, chief marketing officer at Harte Hanks, will explore the post-Parkland era of “brand shaming,” with a focus on how brands can react to NRA-type controversies in “our politically charged new world.” The session is titled “Brand Shaming: The Kids & Brands vs. the NRA.”

“Brand activism is a new imperative for business because, now, more than ever, customers demand that companies ‘do the right thing,’” wrote Philip Kotler, a professor of international marketing at Northwestern University, and Christian Sarkar, editor of The Marketing Journal.

As such, it’s increasingly risky for companies to stay quiet when socially conscious consumers lash out at them, particularly in this age of immediate communication via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

“Many business leaders are getting political because they have determined that, in this environment, the noisiest position is often to remain silent in the face of national condemnation,” according to The Atlantic. “But in politics, responding to one group of consumers invariably means angering another.”

“The choice for companies is simple and stark: Suffer the slings and arrows of liberal activism, or endure the rage and resentment of spurned conservatives,” The Atlantic adds. “In today’s culture wars, for-profits are the new nonprofits.”

Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern, points out in an article published by Quartz that thanks to social media, anyone now can launch a boycott – there’s no longer a need for sophisticated PR campaigns.

As for the communications pros who’ve traditionally created PR campaigns for just that purpose, King contends that many of them are perplexed about how to best respond to NRA-esque outrage among consumers.

“You’re talking about communications professionals who were trained in a different era, before social media,” King says. “Another part of the challenge is that the political environment has never been as polarized or unpredictable. Companies recognize that this is happening, but they’re not sure how to deal with it. I think most of them are just hoping that somehow the earthquake doesn’t happen in their backyard.”

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern, maintains in the Quartz article that, for the most part, companies are trying to stay as impartial as possible. That notion contradicts Jammi’s stance that brands no longer can remain neutral under current circumstances.

“The hard part is that it can be really hard these days to stay in the center of the road,” Calkins acknowledges. “The whole experience, I think, has a lot of senior executives very nervous.”

So, how can marketing pros try to alleviate that nervousness? Calkins offers three suggestions:

  • Ensure you’ve got a process in place to react to comments like the ones directed at companies with NRA connections. For instance, who’s publishing the tweets that respond to such complaints?
  • Scrutinize all of your existing partnerships, like the ones that the many brands had (and some still have) with the NRA.
  • Achieve clarity about which causes your brand will get involved in. “By and large, [brands] want to stay in the center, and for most companies there’s just no reason to take a stand one way or the other on a lot of issues,” Calkins says. “But there are those issues where they do want to take a stand.”

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