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NRA Boycott Shows Why Brand Values Are A Vital Marketing Strategy

More than ever, companies need to know where they stand and how to talk about divisive issues.

NRA Boycott Shows Why Brand Values Are A Vital Marketing Strategy

Dick’s Sporting Goods announced on Wednesday that it will no longer sell assault-style rifles, sell guns to anyone under the age of 21, or sell high-capacity ammunition magazines. Reacting to the Parkland school shooting, CEO Ed Stack told ABC’s Good Morning America, “Based on what’s happened, and looking at those kids and those parents, it moved us all unimaginably and to think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those parents had, we said, ‘We need to do something.’ And we’re taking these guns out of all of our stores permanently.”

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So far, thanks to an outcry over social media and the Parkland victims themselves, brands like MetLife, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Hertz, Avis Budget Group, Enterprise Holdings (parent company of Alamo, Enterprise, and Budget car rental brands) have all ended their discount partnerships with the NRA. There is also pressure on Amazon to stop streaming NRA TV video content. Of course, these brands have also seen their fair share of backlash for the move from the NRA and its supporters.

Sadly, by now it’s a familiar cycle: Mass shooting, followed by calls for increased gun control, and a push for companies and brands to cut ties with gun sales and NRA support. There is typically some action, but little sustained change. After Sandy Hook in 2012, California’s state pension fund and the state’s teachers pension fund divested stakes in gun manufacturers. And after the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, Walmart and Cabela’s stopped selling bump stocks online.

But the speed and strength of the renewed calls for gun control in light of the latest school shooting in Parkland, FL, and a flood of calls to boycott the NRA, has taken many politicians and brands by surprise—and sparked many of them to react quickly. Part of it is due to people being fed up with yet another mass shooting, but this time it’s the victims themselves, the high schoolers well versed in social media, leading the charge.

It’s a perfect example of what many brands have been preparing for since Trump’s election. We see our purchasing choices as votes like never before. Remember when people were burning their New Balance sneakers? Back then, we looked at the brand landscape and outlined five strategies for the age of Trump. All are equally applicable today. As Jonah Bloom, former chief strategy officer of ad agency KBS told me, “Trying to keep your brand out of the cultural conversation today isn’t just a poor strategy. It’s a pipe dream.” Look no further than Stephen Colbert spoofing Delta’s reaction to the backlash.

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Elizabeth Paul, head of strategy at ad agency MullenLowe, says we’ve only begun to see this cycle play out, that the NRA boycott will spread and be more effective than anything we’ve seen in years.

“If companies can exert political influence with their dollars, then voters can exert economic influence over those brands, and consumers are getting smarter, more organized and more easily mobilized around issues they care about,” she says.

What marketers need to do is start spending as much time hashing out their brand’s convictions–and on which issues they take a stand–as they do their overall tone and style guide. “Most will follow the public appetite because that’s where the dollars are,” says Paul. “What matters is having a grid for how you make those decisions, and making sure that your brand’s behaviors align with its beliefs. This won’t be the last mass boycott, so better gather the team and start thinking through those things now.”

That said, this is no time to casually go with the flow. A brand’s position needs to align with either who they’ve been or who they’re choosing to be going forward. “There are people who disagree with Chick-fil-A’s political leanings but respect their consistency,” says Paul. “Some people will boycott them for taking a stand on issues they care about, others will flock to them. Either way, the brand finds their tribe and that tribe tends to be loyal. The same holds true on the right and the left.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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