Why businesses could do politics

Tom Welsh
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GIVEN that most UK businesses carefully avoid the political fray, JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon’s sally into the US debate on gay marriage may have been surprising. When the Supreme Court struck down a law denying benefits to married gay couples, Dimon said “this is good for our company and our clients, but more importantly it’s the right thing to do”.

Political posturing by business leaders doesn’t sound all that relevant for entrepreneurs. Yes, Sir Richard Branson is known for his politics, but the common belief is that expressing opinions risks alienating a customer base. There is an argument, however, that being political may serve you well.

A lot of the analysis has been done in the US. According to research during its last election, Barack Obama supporters came out as Google lovers, while Mitt Romney fans preferred Walmart and McDonalds. Openly identifying with a cause popular among your audience can be a useful means of reinforcing what you stand for and who you are seeking to attract. Alternatively, your firm’s brand could fit closely with existing political demographics, even if you don’t agree with them. Democrat devotees of Whole Foods, the posh food store, probably like its organic lifestyle posturing rather more than its managers. After all, its libertarian founder John Mackay recently likened Obama’s healthcare reforms to fascism.

Although the political divide in Britain is arguably more fluid, Andrew Mulholland of brand agency The Gild suggests that “faith in the underpinnings of society has been rocked. Politicians seem largely powerless to provide answers, so step forward businesses.” Like Ben and Jerry’s (which campaigns on green issues), companies can be values-led, with models aimed at winning custom and advancing a cause. And it doesn’t need to be touchy-feely – Google as much promotes an ideal about the creative power of the individual as it claims to never do evil.

Not all companies should, or need, to do this. But it works for some. And since research in the Sloan Management Review last year showed that, even internet retailers (with a nearly unlimited ability to find customers) must target certain demographics to succeed in their early days, perhaps Britain’s typically bland businesses should become a little more outspoken.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M.