NBA

Corporate America Discovers the Limits of Political Posturing as a Marketing Tactic

Defining a company with political branding is risky business.

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After years of companies gilding themselves with virtue by associating with causes popular among some customers (and implicitly telling folks with different politics to take a hike), Apple, Blizzard Entertainment, and the NBA find themselves torn between the values of an open society and pleasing the authoritarian Chinese government and the vast market it controls. It's a no-win situation that was inevitable once companies took to exploiting political posturing as an opportunity to appeal to favored factions.

"Political discourse is finding its way into the brand world. Or, to be more accurate, brands are joining the political discourse," Patricio Robles of marketing firm Econsultancy noted two years ago. But there are risks to that strategy. "It's simply not possible for brands to craft simple messages around [political topics] that aren't bound to offend large numbers of people who hold reasonable but opposing views," the piece went on to warn.

Many companies have been willing to risk offending large numbers of people in hopes of winning over even more. The NBA, for example, has happily enjoyed the gloss of players and coaches who denounce racism and police brutality and take stands on other issues—some of them explicitly partisan, such as when the Golden State Warriors met with former President Obama rather take the traditional meeting at the White House with current President Trump. Apple's Tim Cook attached himself to calls for racial justice and against police brutality. Nike gambled that dumping Betsy Ross-themed shoes over dubious allegations of racist connotations would play well with more customers than it alienated.

A legion of companies and corporate executives align themselves with the gun control movement out of a perception that they'll curry more favor with Americans fearful of violence—even in a period of declining crime—than they'll lose from those who favor self-defense rights.

Netflix backed out of filming in North Carolina over the state's requirement that people use bathrooms that correspond with their sex at birth, and national retailer Target slapped at the same law.

If those companies please more customers than they offend, it can be a successful strategy, at least in the short-term. But an adopted aura of virtue can be easily dissipated if you run up against somebody who can render it very unprofitable, or simply put you in an impossible position.

For the NBA. that somebody turned out to be Chinese officials and consumers who expressed their displeasure after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters in their struggle against the Chinese government. The team's owner promptly distanced himself and his team from Morey. The NBA itself groveled in a press release noting that Morey's personal statement in support of demonstrators almost universally seen throughout the free world as the good guys "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable." Among other brand-name players, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, no stranger to political statements of his own, ripped into Morey as "misinformed" and failing to consider "the consequences and ramifications of the tweet."

Earlier statements about domestic politics may have worked as outreach to customers who share those takes on the same issues. But Morey's tweet in favor of protesters demanding recognition of the rights available to the residents of free countries posed a very expensive threat to the NBA's plans to expand in China.

Similarly, concerns about police conduct end at the border for Apple's Tim Cook. He and his colleagues briefly agonized before deciding they didn't want Hong Kong residents tracking abusive cops with apps made available by his company. "Apple initially rejected HKmap.live from the App Store earlier this month, then reversed its decision a few days later. Now it has reversed its reversal," reported The Verge. "The app and accompanying web service has been used to mark the locations of police and inform about street closures during the ongoing pro-democracy protests." Apple then dumped the app for Quartz, a news service that closely tracks Hong Kong protests, claiming its content is illegal in China.

Concerns about Chinese reactions also weighed heavily on video game company Blizzard Entertainment, which banned and briefly confiscated the winnings of Hong Kong-based gamer "Blitzchung" after he voiced support during a livecast for pro-liberty protesters in his city. The company later returned the purse and reduced the ban—only to punish an American University team for similar pro-Hong Kong sentiments. Unsurprisingly, Blizzard is expanding in China and worries that the wrong politics will be a problem.

Blizzard has less of a history than Apple or the NBA in terms of political marketing, but the company does have a plaque on its campus promising that "every voice matters"—which was covered by outraged employees in protest of management's conduct.

Apple, the NBA, and Blizzard would have run up against China's censoriousness, no matter what, while doing business there. But a history of political posturing makes Apple's and the NBA's stroking of the world's largest police state that much harder to stomach. For its part, Blizzard's first major foray into political expression is one that explicitly supports an authoritarian regime and violates its own stated values.

The impossible situation and the reaction it engendered was predictable; once companies started down the path of favoring one political position or faction over another, they were guaranteeing conflict and just hoping that they'd picked the winning side. Even before these firms ran up against the impossibility of finding a political position that could please both pro-democracy protesters and thuggish authoritarians, companies were discovering the downside of alienating some people in order to win the favor of others.

For example, Target's opposition to North Carolina's bathroom law sparked a backlash among social conservatives who, like other customers, also have money to spend. Starbucks had to respond to push back from customers who saw the company's pledge to hire refugees as conflicting with its earlier promise to hire veterans. Neither reaction gained much national notice, but they should have been taken as indicators that companies enter a minefield by politicizing their brands.

How do businesses navigate a world in which people hold opposing views on many issues and different interpretations of right and wrong? There's no clear and easy answer but submitting to the demands of an authoritarian government will always be a bad look, rendered that much worse if you've made a habit of cloaking yourself in assumed virtue by embracing political causes.

As an alternative, businesses could respect the free speech rights of employees and customers and keep the businesses themselves as free as possible from political entanglements that just alienate potential customers.

"Brands should also consider that there's a huge difference between true values and political positions and consider how their statements, initiatives and decisions can unnecessarily conflate the two, dividing their customers and turning themselves into political props in the process," Econsultancy's Robles cautioned in 2017.

In the weeks and months to come, Apple, Blizzard, the NBA, and lots of other companies may have to reconsider the choices they've made about politicized branding for their efforts.

NEXT: A Famous Study Found That Blind Auditions Reduced Sexism in the Orchestra. Or Did It?

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74 responses to “Corporate America Discovers the Limits of Political Posturing as a Marketing Tactic

  1. The answer is to stay out of politics. Politics are a dead loser for a business. Getting involved will only alienate potential customers and no amount of virtue signaling will ever satisfy the side you take.

    Politics when it affects business is transformed into tribalism and is just a ticket to poverty. The reason why tribal societies are so much poorer than western ones is western societies make business decisions and trade decisions based on comparative advantage in wealth and tribal societies make all decisions based on tribe.

    If the NBA or some corporation doesn’t want to do business with North Carolina because of politics, everyone is poorer as a result. If you go on the assumption that trade occurs because it makes both parties better off than the alternative, then both the NBA and North Carolina are poorer when trade that otherwise would have occurred doesn’t because of politics.

    Yes, as a matter of principle corporations doing business based on politics is their right. But as a practical matter, it is poison to our economy and way of life. If we ever get to the point where the left and the real alt right win and everyone only does business with those of their political tribe, it will be the end of American capitalism and economic prosperity as we know it.

    1. I sent my sister some Thomas The Tank Engine lollipops for Christmas stocking stuffers about 25 years ago, and she upbraided me because that is a Disney property and Disney supported benefits for gay spouses. I told her that not only did I not know, I did not care, and i wasn’t going to fret over it, because the economy is so intertwined that neither she nor I can effectively boycott companies supporting gay spousal benefits. Does she boycott UPS, or FedEx, or USPS, or whoever delivered the lollipops? How does she know if any of the people who handled that package were gay, and if she did, would she boycott them, personally?

      You have got to leave politics out of that. It’s one thing to boycott a political product, like a specific movie or book or lesbo Barbie and gay Ken. It’s another thing to extend boycott to entire companies. Good luck with maintaining your principles!

      1. I have a sister who who won’t do business with anyone she disagrees with, like target its a sin. I point out that soon enough she won’t be able to work with anyone. Not that anyone really wants to work with her, I avoid her myself.. she thinks this makes her a martyr for her religion.

        1. You sound like a true defender of the individual.

          1. You can believe in someone’s right to be an idiot and still think they’re being an idiot.

    2. Politics are a dead loser for a business.

      This has been my argument. As Tuccille deftly points out, even short term gains for your brand can too easily blow up in the current cultural minefield. Unless your customer base is primarily the woke (and even then), it’s a bad idea to voluntarily wade into the muck.

      1. The woke crowd is small in number, and with a few Silicon valley billionaire exceptions, most of them don’t have much many.

        So you end up alienating paying customers to please woke non-customers.

    3. Dude, you once argued that I was committing “economic terrorism” if I avoided a bakery that I knew would refuse me a wedding cake.

      Your views on the ethics of boycotts are kinda ludicrous.

      1. No they are not. I made the exact point I am making here. If you want to make business about politics, you are making it so that if taken to its logical conclusion, no one can hold an unpopular opinion and run a business.

        If everyone refuses to do business with someone who holds a political opinion they don’t like, you end up with a tribal society and very poor. Moreover, you end up with a situation where anyone who speaks an opinion that enough people don’t like can make an honest living.

        You are a fucking fascist moron if you can’t understand that or worse think such a state of affairs is desirable.

        1. Ah yes, if you don’t buy products from someone that doesn’t want to sell you products, you are the true fascist.

          There’s a reason “slippery slope” is a fallacy dude.

    4. Michael Jordan was the gold standard here, and it’s a shame more don’t follow his example.

      It’s one thing to oppose ISiS or Nazi Death Camps, it’s another to weigh in as a crusader on every trifling trendy issue of the moment. Living in a socioeconomic and ideological bubble gives you a false sense of just how trendy you are being.

      1. It’s one thing to oppose ISiS or Nazi Death Camps

        or the Communist Party of China.

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  2. You’re making a mistake if you think this is merely a marketing tactic – it’s the natural result of a corporate bureaucracy managing other people’s money. Who gives a shit if they’re not focusing on maximizing shareholder value by hiring diversity officers and wokeness sentinels and a whole host of sensitivity monitors for every goddamn grievance group under the Sun? Virtue signaling is of incalculable value when somebody else is signing the check. These assholes need to be arrested and locked up for misappropriation of funds and violation of fiduciary duty for pulling this shit.

    1. But how many investors want this kind of shit?

      1. Not many if any at all once they realize it costs them money. The problem is that shareholder rules and board and corporate leadership duties are virtually impossible to enforce. The boards of these companies all get paid to do nothing except rubber stand the decisions of the CEO. Even if it all goes tits up, everyone walks away with a golden parachute and the shareholders and employees wind up paying the price.

        The whole model is based on the assumption that shareholders will hold boards and CEOs’ feet to the fire to do what is best for the company. That assumption just isn’t true anymore. Boards and CEO’s consistently do what is not best for the company but what is best for them personally, including their egos and their social standing among other elites. What do I care if the company I manage loses billions because I made some woke stand? I am still getting paid and all of my friends and piers will treat me like a hero. The only people harmed are shareholders and employees. Who cares about them?

        1. “And who cares if the company is driven out of business in a decade because we gave China IP secrets to do business there, it made me $10m immediately”

          The corporate world is every bit as shitty and short sighted as government

        2. What do I care if the company I manage loses billions because I made some woke stand?

          I am genuinely curious if you would say the same thing if the NBA had said “fuck you, China, we stand for freedom of speech and liberty for all.”

          1. If he said that and it lost the company money, his shareholders if there were any, would have a legitimate bitch. I would love it and think it was great and it would make me want to buy the guy’s product more all things being equal. But it is not my money he is losing if he did. The people whose money it is, would have every right to be pissed and fire the guy if it was costing them money.

            That is the thing with the NBA. If they want to make a business decision and go along with China, who am I to blame them? That being said, however, I don’t want to hear anymore of their thoughts on other politics because it is clear they are saying whatever they think will make them money or at least not lose them money.

            That is the real fallout of all of this. The NBA and its woke stars no longer have any credibility to talk about politics. They have made it clear that money is all they care about. And that is their right. But they need to stop pretending they care about other things when it is easy and convenient.

  3. How do businesses navigate a world in which people hold opposing views on many issues and different interpretations of right and wrong?

    It boggles the mind. Perhaps by offering a product or service that enough people buy in order to make a profit?

    1. ^ Crazy man. Not woke. Ungood.

  4. Many business owners and managers are whores, and will do whatever they need to in order to succeed. And so will most people, at least occasionally.

    Many business owners and managers are biased political animals who will speak out and posture, even if they are not consistent. And so do most people.

    So where is the surprise? Do we really expect people to behave consistently, and guide their decisions with logical thinking based on a fixed ethical foundation?

  5. Sure, the hook is China, but it is amusing to single out these particular entities while ignoring Chik Fila, Hobby Lobby, the NFL, NASCAR, etc.

    Perhaps that sort of politicization is so common that it is just background noise? Or perhaps this is the game where *I’m* politicizing things by objecting to *your* politics.

    In either case, some folks don’t see the fishbowl they live in.

    1. Or perhaps this is the game where *I’m* politicizing things by objecting to *your* politics.

      There are others that go in there too. Starbucks, Gibson’s Bakery, Memories Pizza, Masterpiece Cakeshop, etc. An underlying part of the problem that you’re hinting at around the edges if not outright concealing is that Chik-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, Starbucks, Gibson’s, arguably the NFL, etc. didn’t have a political stance and the politics was brought to them. The NFL didn’t make kneeling political Capernick did. ‘No loitering’ isn’t a political position, it’s a business policy. ‘No stealing’ isn’t a political position, it’s a buisness policy and sound legal advice.

      1. You do know that the NFL has been political longer then any current player has been alive, right?

        1. You do know that the NFL has been political longer then any current player has been alive, right?

          You do know that I didn’t cite the NFL, the NFL wasn’t the only business cited, and that there are other words on the page to indicate context as to why businesses were cited, right? There is no order from the President or bill from Congress founding the NFL. It certainly has become political but it didn’t start as a political organization.

          1. You do know that I, and many other people, can respond to one part of what a person says without bothering to address it all, right?

        2. Are you an NFL fan, escher?
          Been following it long?

    2. Or perhaps a private citizen using his private money, separate from the operational income of the corporation he founded, to silently support political causes and candidates of his choice isn’t actually politicizing any fucking thing at all.

      Or perhaps a company choosing its health insurance plans based on the ethical stance of its owners, then being forced by the federal government to provide health insurance plans that violate the ethical stance of its owners, then having to sue the federal government to avoid having to provide health insurance plans that violate the ethical stance of its owners also isn’t actually politicizing any fucking thing at all.

      1. Yes, government thinking it is its duty to micromanage the terms of private contractual relationships is the politicizing aspect.

  6. “Brands should also consider that there’s a huge difference between true values and political positions and consider how their statements, initiatives and decisions can unnecessarily conflate the two, dividing their customers and turning themselves into political props in the process,” Econsultancy’s Robles cautioned in 2017.

    *cough* Libertarian party *cough*

  7. The impossible situation and the reaction it engendered was predictable; once companies started down the path of favoring one political position or faction over another, they were guaranteeing conflict and just hoping that they’d picked the winning side.

    This is the heart of it all, and the lesson these clowns should have already known and not needed to learn. I remember when Google and Amazon decided to stop listing firearms as if they were illegal to sell over the internet, even though they weren’t being shipped illegally. Then firearms accessories got the axe. Now all sorts of unwoke goods are off-limits. All it has done is bind them up in a maze of wokeness, and every item they ban just binds them up worse in a tangled web of deceit.

    All this was predicted back then, and they ignored it for the expedient wokeness. They will continue to ignore the problem, and eventually some competitor will offer non-woke policies and prosper.

    1. “All this was predicted back then, and they ignored it for the expedient wokeness.”

      Google and Amazon are two of the most powerful corporate entities on the planet. They will continue to rake in the money while you are holding out for more agreeable competitors to show themselves.

      1. Dood! Do you think that immediate emergency action is required if your desired outcome does not happen immediately?

        Yes, yes you do. You are a proggies with no principles and no faith in what you claim to believe. Me, I believe in markets, and I believe markets will correct these imperfections, because that is what markets do. Market failures are the norm,and market fixes are the ordinary way markets handle market failures.

      2. “Google and Amazon are two of the most powerful corporate entities on the planet. “

        Somebody’s always going to be the biggest. There were others before them, and there will be others when they’re gone.

      3. They will continue to rake in the money while you are holding out for more agreeable competitors to show themselves.

        Aaaand?

  8. It’s a no-win situation that was inevitable once companies took to exploiting political posturing as an opportunity to appeal to favored factions.

    What nonsense is this? China isn’t restricting it’s heavy hand to companies that were “exploiting political posturing”. They’re pretty equal-opportunity.

    Oh, wait…

    Apple, the NBA, and Blizzard would have run up against China’s censoriousness, no matter what, while doing business there.

    So you admit, your own premise is bullshit?

    As an alternative, businesses could […] keep the businesses themselves as free as possible from political entanglements that just alienate potential customers.

    Only if you restrict senior positions to straight white men. Anything else is seen as “political”.

    More succinctly, “neutrality” has never been an equal boon to both the oppressor and the oppressed, it has always favored the oppressor. Hewing to the status quo in an attempt to be neutral and “free from political entanglements” will always be anti-freedom.

    1. If you’d studied business instead of critical theory you might be at work at 10 in the morning instead of regurgitating buzzwords on a blog. Just sayin’.

    2. Straight white men… I knew there was an inherently evil group at work here.

      1. Yeah, that’s projection.

        I did not say that straight white men were “inherently evil” or any such nonsense. I said that any other choice is often seen as “political”.

    3. Lol I think we found the pro-China guy.

      1. You think “China isn’t restricting it’s heavy hand to companies that were “exploiting political posturing”. They’re pretty equal-opportunity” is pro-China?

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  10. But a history of political posturing makes Apple’s and the NBA’s stroking of the world’s largest police state that much harder to stomach.

    This is the core of the matter for me. Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.

  11. Yeah I’ve noticed lots of these companies going broke after toeing the official supranational global governance line.

    Oh wait, that has literally never once happened. Why it’s almost like markets are a fucking joke and the entire global economy is operated by and for the benefit of a few hundred multi-billionaire power mad authoritarians.

    1. What people like the reason staff don’t seem to understand is that corporations only need to make just enough money to survive. They live in this fantasy world where every corporation does everything it possibly can to make a buck and all markets are perfect. In reality, corporations are not much different than governments in that they are full of inefficiencies and inanities. And they can get away with that just so long as they make enough money to survive.

  12. For its part, Blizzard’s first major foray into political expression is one that explicitly supports an authoritarian regime and violates its own stated values.

    I thought Mists of Pandaria sucked, too.

  13. I like how the NBA decides not to do business in NC, but then shreds it’s so-called values to do business in a country where they have literal concentration camps for Muslims and openly suppress homosexuality.

    This is hilarious. I want more of this. Let’s watch the executives squirm as they try desperately to square their prior stances towards reasonable Americans with their business dealings with an actual oppressive and violent regime.

    1. Watching Steve Kerr talk about how he can’t comment on Hong Kong because cops clubbing people like seals is “complicated”, unlike American race relations, police brutality and transgenderism. You know, simple things that Kerr feels confident opining about. It was one of the most pathetic and comical things I have seen in a long time.

  14. Sell me your damned widget and shut your pie hole.

  15. Its almost like the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Weird.

  16. Just make the Van Buren street gang sign. Nobody else will know what it means.

    1. It was when I was banging!!

  17. Sigh….politics and business just don’t mix. Never have, never will. It is just bad business to turn off potential customers with politics. I mean, it just makes no common sense whatsoever to piss off people who want to buy your product and service…seriously, why risk profits?

  18. I agree with the main point of the article, but are we really in such a bizarro world that opposing racism and police brutality is a controversial political issue?

    1. Nobody is opposing racism or police brutality, people oppose the way the “news” is delivered in a pandering, propagandist, twisting facts, etc. fashion. It also doesn’t help that the delivery method is slanted very much to the socialist left.

    2. You’ll find few people, in modern America, who will say that racism and police brutality are good.

      What you’re much more likely to find is people who deny that they are widespread systemic problems, and think the people who are listing their grievances are being untruthful.

  19. This whole episode has been at least educational. So the next time one of these corporate asshats makes a bumbling twitter foray into domestic social justice, or attempts to posture in the predictably bizarre ways, we can just pound the motherfucking tar out of them on this issue.

    We have discovered the sore spot, now kick it relentlessly.

  20. “with their sex at birth”

    You mean their sex. Period. There is no “at birth” unless you’ve devised a radical procedure that actually modifies our chromosomes and rewrites DNA without killing us.

    1. Even if you have devised such a procedure, we’ve got pretty solid science to indicate that the vagina isn’t some Just-In-Time genital compiler that hooks up the plumbing at the last minute. You can certainly opt to remain ignorant of any particular outcome but the outcome is determined well before birth.

  21. Also, this issue of political business is a strong argument for nationalism. The reality of unchecked globalism is a slew of mercenary corporations dominating our lives and making us choose between what we value and what we need. We should expect American corporations, just as we expect Americans, to have American values. Otherwise, they shouldn’t be doing business here, never mind receiving tax credits or any sort of support.

  22. What would woke corporations do if Chinese police were caught on video blocking a trans person for using xir bathroom of choice?