Brand survival in the Trump era

Branding guru Kelly O’Keefe discusses president’s effect on companies

Featured photo

With the country divided between pro- and anti-Trumpers, one group cannot afford to take sides — brands whose livelihoods depend on appealing to the entire population.

But even brands trying to remain neutral are not safe from the political fray, which, like a black hole, eventually pulls in everything as it grows. Take Nordstrom, which President Donald Trump panned on Twitter after it dropped daughter Ivanka’s line because of lackluster sales. Or Budweiser, whose American Dream ad during the Super Bowl was criticized by conservatives for apparently opposing the president’s immigration ban.

As the nation becomes more polarized, more businesses will suffer, said Kelly O’Keefe, professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter.

O’Keefe, VCU’s branding expert, spoke with VCU News about how companies can survive the current culture wars.

Kelly O’Keefe
Kelly O’Keefe

Why is it harder for brands to remain neutral in this political climate?

The current political climate has blurred the lines between social attitudes and political stances. For example, being pro-immigration, which has historically been a unifying characteristic of Americans, is now seen as a Democrat position, while being opposed to immigration is seen as a Republican stance. In this environment, an inspiring ad showing the founding father of Budweiser coming to America has been criticized as an attack on the president’s immigration ban. Brands are being forced to reevaluate their communications to determine whether they can be construed as politically charged.

Have we ever seen anything like this before, where brands have been pulled into culture wars?

We’ve never seen such an acute issue with cultural messages, but we’ve certainly seen brands become embattled by cultural stances in the past.

In 2011, Chick-fil-A became embroiled in controversy after its founding family was found to have donated millions of dollars to organizations opposed to marriage equality. This resulted in boycotts from proponents of same sex-marriages, which were followed by support from organizations opposed to same-sex marriages. As far back as 2002, Ford Motor Co. got caught up in a similar controversy after it was reported that its Jaguar brand (no longer part of Ford) was running ads targeted specifically at gay consumers. 

While controversies like these have happened occasionally, the first few weeks of this administration have resulted in a flurry of activity involving brands like Uber, Kellog’s, Nordstrom, Under Armour, 84 Lumber, Budweiser, Starbucks and others.

Are there types of brands that are more susceptible?

Brands with large, mainstream audiences are more susceptible than brands with more culturally homogenous niche audiences. For a brand like Starbucks, which is stronger in more progressive urban markets, the risks of retaliation from the right may be minimal, while brands that appeal to a broad cross section of the public need to proceed with more caution.

Is there anything that brands can do to avoid being pulled into the political crossfire?

The best advice to a brand that wants to stay out of the fray is to steer clear of polarizing social stances. But brands also need to be prepared to be pulled in, whether they choose to or not. For example, we gave brand management students the hypothetical dilemma that Google was opening a data center in Ohio and the president’s team called to say he’d like to be at the ribbon cutting. How should Google react? If they say “yes,” they will hear protests from one part of the population they serve; if they say “no,” another part of the population will protest and there’s always the possibility they’ll become the subject of an angry tweet from the president to his 20 million followers. This may sound far-fetched, but the very next day, Harley Davidson was in the identical situation.

What can brands do to survive? What can they do to mitigate fallout?

Brands need to start preparing now for any eventuality. Here are the most important actions to take:

  • Know your base. Now is the time to be absolutely certain you know who your core customer is and what they value.
  • Be prepared to take sides. Prepare in advance for a situation that may force your hand. Know which side you’ll take and why. 
  • Take the high road. Focus on people and human values, not on politics. Don’t look at the issue as a battle of left and right. Look at it as a choice between wrong and right. 
  • Prepare to mitigate fallout. Once you’ve made your decision, like it or not, your brand could be targeted on Twitter. Plan actions to mitigate the fallout.

With Trump and his people endorsing or bashing brands, does this help or hurt brands in the long run?

The sad truth is this is bad for everyone. The more politicized business becomes, the more risk there is that American businesses will suffer. Brands like Apple enjoy the ability to market to 100 percent of consumer prospects. Imagine the cost to the brand if 50 percent of consumers turn away from the brand at the urging of the president? The impact would be measured in tens of billions of dollars and, ultimately, in the effect on jobs, taxes and the economy as a whole.

What would you like to add?

While I’ve focused on the risk and the need for brands to protect themselves, there is a bright side. So far we’ve seen very little long-term fallout for brands like Nordstrom that have been targeted by the president. And other brands like Airbnb are taking advantage of their progressive customer base to make strong stands in support of diversity and immigration. So for many brands, there is reward as well as risk. The key is to plan ahead, know your customer and know yourself.


Subscribe for free to the VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday.