Delta learns the hard way there's no such thing as neutral

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Credit: Illustration by Doug Chayka

Delta Air Lines' decision to end discounts to National Rifle Association members made it a social media target of gun-rights supporters. It also cost the company a bundle after Georgia Senate Republicans retributed by axing a fuel tax exemption that would have saved the airline $50 million.

Delta was one of many corporate partners that cut NRA ties in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. In doing so, Delta claimed it was trying to remain "neutral" on the issue because it neither supported nor opposed gun control (and therefore should not offer discounts to groups associated with either faction). But in this environment, brands that try to remain outside broad societal conversations are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

"Political polarization and the widespread use of social media are the chief reasons that it's increasingly difficult for brands to remain neutral on societal and political issues," says Gene Grabowski, a partner at crisis communications firm KGlobal. "Consumers themselves are becoming more polarized and want to know where the companies whose products they use stand on well-publicized issues."

Grabowski adds that the rise of social has accelerated this phenomenon because consumers can now publicly register complaints, organize boycotts and directly reach out to the media for coverage. The rub, of course, is that staking out turf on a divisive issue can often cause more harm than good.

The neutrality struggle

Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, says that companies have tried to remain above the fray for years and most are "still trying desperately to be neutral."

The problem, he says, is that we're in a time of such transparency that companies have to be very thoughtful about any alliances, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous, because consumers notice everything. Some partnerships or discount deals with organizations may have been made decades ago, Calkins says, so brands need to examine these arrangements and "unwind" some. (This wasn't the case with Delta, which offered the NRA discounts for only a short time, for members purchasing flights to the group's May 2018 convention in Dallas.)

"You can't have special arrangements and be neutral," says Calkins. In the case with Delta, only 13 people used the NRA discount, and Calkins says the airline never came out and said it supported gun control legislation.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian did, however, announce that the company is looking at whether to end discounts with other "politically divisive" organizations after Georgia lawmakers punished the airline by removing the jet fuel tax exemption from a larger bill.

In a memo to employees, Bastian wrote: "While Delta's intent was to remain neutral, some elected officials in Georgia tied our decision to a pending jet fuel tax exemption, threatening to eliminate it unless we reversed course. Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale."

While Delta's decision may have had complications associated with it, PR Council President Renee Wilson says Bastian did the right thing for the company's brand and brand equity. "Anytime a company stays true to its values and is transparent with all stakeholders, it's a win," she says.

Representatives from Delta said the company has no comment beyond the statements already made by Bastian.

Advocacy and action

The catch-22 is that consumers and other stakeholders expect companies to both advocate and take more ownership of issues, says Howard Pulchin, global director-creative strategy and community at Apco Worldwide.

"Saying nothing is often saying a lot, and stating a point of view without any action isn't looked at well either," says Pulchin, adding that brands need to carefully analyze what makes sense for them to support.

For example, he says that outdoor clothing and equipment retailer Patagonia is very vocal about environmental issues, which is relevant to its brand. But the company doesn't take a strong stand on other controversial issues, like abortion or tax policies.

Grabowski believes that legacy companies, like Delta, have a harder time than younger brands identifying their "why" or "reason for existing" beyond making money. Smaller brands and more modern marketers, like Whole Foods, have distinctive voices, personalities and values that consumers understand right away. Larger marketers, Grabowski says, need to go back to their roots and figure out why they were founded and then highlight their principles.

But Pulchin says maturation doesn't matter. A values-driven company can be young or old. "Consumers of the future won't distinguish between legacy and startup. It's about what companies align with," he says.

No political talk

Not everyone agrees that brands should play on political ground like gun control. "I generally suggest companies stick to doing a great job and leave politics to politicians," says Mark Penn, president and managing partner of the Stagwell Group and former pollster to President Bill Clinton.

He adds, "If routine group discounts now face a broad political litmus test, there will be no end to issues Delta may face in the future. Will they have to deny group discounts to religious groups on the Southern Poverty Law Center list? Will they need a perspective on every issue of the day?"

Legacy companies, Penn says, should focus on "how they can help build social progress and consensus rather than what they are against." Brands like Apple, Amazon and Starbucks are well-positioned to do that, as long as they don't stray too far into politics, adds Penn.

While many brands are trying to feed off societal issues, it doesn't always work out for the best. Cadillac, for instance, reversed course and opted to feature more vehicles in ads it ran during the 2018 Oscars, departing from its approach in the 2017 show, when it ran ads plugging unity. "I kind of feel the public is tired of seeing these heavy, lofty ads," Cadillac marketing director Renée Rauchut told Ad Age earlier this year. Coke just entered the third year of its soda-focused "Taste the Feeling" campaign, which moved away from the more ideals-based "Open Happiness" ads.

Potential backlash could also lead some marketers back to making the hard sell rather than joining or creating a social movement. Coors Light recently decided to talk more about its beer and less about human achievement as it seeks to reverse a sales slump. After the brand shifted in 2016 from fun ads to a campaign called "Climb On" that sought to build emotional bonds with drinkers by portraying people overcoming challenges, shipments fell 4.1 percent the following year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Now the beer is going back to more product-focused ads that highlight its Rocky Mountain heritage.

Taking a stance on political and societal issues can have serious ramifications on a company's business, but ultimately all a brand can do is be open and honest about its values, policies, alliances and partnerships, says Omnicom Public Relations Group CEO Karen van Bergen.

"The power is then in the customers' hands whether or not they choose to spend their money with that company," she says.

—Contributing: E.J. Schultz

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