Why brands can't escape the reality of politics

I recently attended a discussion with Jacques Panis, the president of Shinola, a company convinced it exemplifies the unrivaled power of American manufacturing and the ingenuity of the private sector. Panis spent a considerable amount of time explaining how the public sector has failed to create prosperity for its citizens—especially in Detroit, where Shinola is based—while the private sector, and specifically Shinola, has been a saving grace for job creation. Yet when asked about national politics and how the current political environment could affect his business, he was evasive and kept repeating that his company is immune from societal debates and prefers to stay out of them altogether.

Corporate leaders have every right to avoid making political statements about whether President Trump is good or bad, or if our country is on the right track. But I find it naive at best that a company such as Shinola can escape from politics, especially one whose brand is predicated on saving American manufacturing jobs, even though most of its products are only assembled, not manufactured, in America.

I went to see Panis speak because I was looking forward to hearing his views on manufacturing, job creation and globalization, topics that are complex and should transcend political party ideologies. What he shared instead was a dubious point of view that some brands can exist forever in a vacuum, and are unaffected by politics of any sort. This is not how reality works.

Politics, corporations and brands

Just like people, brands are always speaking, explicitly or implicitly. Every decision a brand makes, which inherently affects politics, is an act of speech. If a brand outsources production to a foreign country, that is a political decision that says something about the brand. The same goes for a brand's culture, compensation, leadership, product quality, marketing, aesthetics, advertising, and much more. Decisions across all of these vectors have political consequences.

For some time now, brands have been on a collision course with customers and activists on every side of the political spectrum. Some are demanding that brands take an overt political stand on national issues. (Trump is good! Trump is bad!). Others are insisting brands should stay out of politics all together. At the same time, other people recoil when a brand takes a political stand that differs from their own beliefs. Most recently, some customers are threatening to withhold their support of brands that they disagree with politically. As a result, many brands have stayed quiet, fearing negative press and financial consequences from speaking about any political issue.

While refusing to take a public stand on national issues is entirely a brand's prerogative, the most problematic stance comes from brands such as—but not limited to—Shinola that believe they are apolitical and removed from politics altogether.

Governmental vs societal politics

Politics is a natural process. Just like gravity, it's not something you can "stay out of" or pretend doesn't exist. It's everywhere and unavoidable. But the political process is not inherently good or bad. What happens within politics—the consequences of decisions within the political system—can be positive or negative depending on whom you ask. For example, someone could think that global trade is good while someone else could think global trade is bad. But the political process itself for figuring out where someone stands on trade, for example, is not inherently good or bad. It's just a process.

The political process has two levels: governmental politics and societal politics. The official definition of what I'll call governmental politics from Merriam-Webster Dictionary is "the art or science of government." This definition of the political process often conjures polarized opinions when it's applied to government. In America, "politics" is often associated with right versus left, red versus blue, Trump versus Hillary, and so on. But this is an incomplete use of the word "politics."

The official definition from Merriam-Webster for what I'll call societal politics is "the total complex of relations between people living in society." The political process on a societal level is much more encompassing than governmental politics. It's how people interact, work together and exist in everyday life. This might seem like an overly broad definition, but it's emblematic of the reality that every decision a person or company makes has consequences. Some decisions have different magnitudes than others—"Should I eat a pear or an apple?" versus "Should we move this American factory overseas?"—but both decisions have consequences. The political process as it relates to society, just like government, is not inherently good or bad or something you can "stay out of." It's just a process.

Yet governmental and societal politics are symbiotically connected. Society does not exist without government and government cannot exist without society. Every decision a person or company makes exists within—and affects—the societal and governmental political process.

Going forward

People need to move beyond the binary definition of governmental politics (Good! Bad!) and start looking under the surface at all of the political forces at play with brands and society more generally. It's easy to reduce everything to pro-Trump or anti-Trump rhetoric, but that shallow analysis doesn't change anything. Instead, it's worth looking deeper into the actions brands are taking—some spoken, some unspoken—and how these decisions influence both governmental and societal politics.

Interestingly, the recent fury about brands taking high level pro-Trump or anti-Trump political positions has led some to believe that speaking out or staying silent is a lose-lose situation. A more sustainable option is for brands to speak about specific policies, instead of people. For example, initiatives like Americans for Affordable Products, which is a business group that is against the border adjustment tax, is a meaningful way to act and acknowledge that politics matter. The same goes for the 50 tech companies filing an amicus brief opposing the administration's travel ban. These pragmatic actions allow consumers to figure out where they stand on issues beyond simple impulses and hyperbole.

Brands speaking out about policies such as fair and equal pay, affordable products, immigration, sustainable production practices, and environmentally friendly materials are nuanced admissions that brands exist in the same reality that humans do. Brands can and should push back on calls to take binary, oversimplified positions, and instead embrace the complex world we live in. Denying the prevalence of politics—be it governmental or societal—is a futile and naive quest.