Tiffany, Trump, Jewelers, and Politics

This week, Tiffany & Co. waded into the always-contentious political waters with a note to President Trump regarding climate change, which appeared on its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds, and as an ad in The New York Times.

What makes this gesture notable is that Tiffany didn’t just profess support for the environment—something brands do on a regular basis. It took an explicit stand about a specific issue (the Paris Climate Agreement), and aimed it a public figure (President Trump, who reportedly named his daughter after the retailer).

Whether or not you agree with Tiffany’s point of view, the question is: Should the brand—or any brand—take a political position?

Traditionally, jewelers have shied away from any kind of controversy. As one veteran store owner wrote on my Facebook wall:

I had what could be described as a “bad experience” when I took a political stand on a local issue. It had an immediate impact on my business. My advice to Tiffany’s is leave advocacy to the advocates. Make the world a better place by selling beautiful jewelry, taking the cash and funding whatever cause trips your trigger.

Experts that talked to National Jeweler mostly agreed.

Yet, lately, some companies have disregarded this advice. Consumer brands try to respond to the larger culture. And today, the hot topic is politics, as my (and many other) Facebook feeds can attest.

Tiffany isn’t the only brand hopping aboard this train. There was also an unusual amount of politically themed ads during the Super Bowl and Oscars telecasts.

Is this smart? Tiffany wants to appeal to millennials, and the environment is an important issue to younger consumers. Its “Dear President Trump” missive got extensive publicity, certainly more than the average jeweler’s social media post.

“Showing the world what you stand for (and occasionally against) is now as important, efficient, and effective an eyeball-grabbing platform as exists,” wrote Seth Matlins, executive vice president of branded impact at WME/IMG in Time. “To win today’s battles for attention—as in, relevance, engagement, resource allocation, and return—you’d better let people know whose side you’re on.”

Of course, not all the reaction was positive. Some told Tiffany they would never buy anything there again. In the end, the calculation has to be: Is any positive reaction worth the blowback?

As counterintuitive as it seems, in this polarized era, it can pay to be partisan. We see this on cable news. For years, major news organizations cultivated an air of studied neutrality (most still do), even as they were regularly attacked by both sides for being biased one way or another. Then Fox News Channel premiered, with an unabashed conservative slant. It soon became the highest-rated news channel—though it’s now challenged by liberal-leaning MSNBC. “Neutral” CNN, meanwhile, is struggling.

It’s the same story in late-night comedy. Traditionally, talk show hosts like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno made fun of both sides. Jimmy Fallon has largely followed in that tradition—but recently he’s been overtaken by explicitly anti-Trump Stephen Colbert.

If taking a side works for news stations and comedians, could it work for consumer brands? No brand has become more of a political football than Ivanka Trump’s. Last we heard, its clothing sales were up.

Expressing political opinions can make you enemies, but also fervent fans. As consumers now have unlimited choice, a growing number want to patronize companies that reflect their values. One way brands signal that is by speaking out on issues their customers care about.

Getting political is not for everyone. Here are some common-sense rules for jewelers wanting to express controversial opinions:

– Make sure it’s right for your audience.

Quite a few jewelers have run “buy a diamond, get a gun” promotions. Those might be controversial in some areas, less so in others. Likewise, last year, Zales ran an ad featuring a gay wedding. While it was hardly the first advertiser to do that, one group still threatened a boycott over it, and a religious right activist suggested Zales’ execs are possessed by Satan. However when JCK screened that ad for millennials, they all singled out that moment as especially appealing.

– Be sincere.

After Tiffany ran its post on the Paris accords, some commenters accused the company of hypocrisy—after all, it uses mined products. But Tiffany can point to its longtime support for sustainability. The retailer even publicly lobbied against the proposed Pebble gold mine, which was (once) owned by a business partner. CEO Michael Kowalski had talked about becoming an environmental activist during his now-aborted retirement. So this ad appears to have sprung from its leader’s deeply held convictions more than business reasons (although one assumes those were considered, too; Tiffany is a public company).

On the other hand, when Pepsi ran a protest-themed ad, it sparked such a backlash—even from would-be supporters—that it was quickly pulled. Not just because the ad was silly­, but because Pepsi doesn’t necessarily jibe with “resistance.”

– Be prepared for blowback.

During last year’s presidential race, Brooklyn jewelry company Lady Grey received an order from Ivanka Trump. Its owners responded with a note saying they were donating the sale’s proceeds in part to the Hillary Clinton campaign. When that missive was posted on Instagram, it went viral, with some Trump fans vowing to put the company out of business.

Politics is an ugly business; these days, it’s uglier than ever. Passions are running high, and some people will take what you say personally. Expect that. That said…

– Be respectful.

People understand that not everyone agrees with them. But there’s no excuse for being a jerk.

(Image courtesy of Tiffany & Co.)

 

JCK News Director