What Happens When Brands Take Sides During a Presidential Election?

hillary clinton ralph lauren
Hillary Clinton and fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
REX Shutterstock.

One of the most controversial presidential elections in recent times has seen many otherwise vocal brands and influencers steer clear of the melee for obvious reasons. But not everyone has backed down. This stormy election season — marked by increasingly contentious debates, an FBI probe and rhetoric that ignited racial, ethnic and gender-related tensions — has compelled many brands to take a side.

But is there a payoff for companies that play the political game?

Sam Poser, a retail-industry analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group LLLP, doesn’t think so.

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It’s best for brands to keep their mouths shut because everything comes back around to get you,” Poser said. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong.”

Jeff Van Sinderen, a retail analyst with B. Riley & Co. LLC, agreed — noting that the potential consequences for a brand can be wide ranging.

Brand perception, sales and profitability all can be impacted,” Van Sinderen said. “It could potentially boost business with a certain demographic, while hurting business with a demographic that leans toward the other side of an issue — it just seems really tough to gauge the impact and outcome in both directions.”

Where the fashion industry is concerned, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has emerged as the favorite, with Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch and others voicing their endorsements for the candidate. New York-based skateboard brand Supreme also spoke up to support Clinton last week, following the winds of fashion and entertainment’s tastemakers such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and LeBron James.

While they’re generally against it, both Van Sinderen and Poser said there are situations in which it may make sense for brands to take a political stance.

If you’re trying to stir things up and you want to do something very disruptive — it could be interesting,” Poser said. “But I think it’s [better] to be political for a cause, such as LGBT rights or environmental issues — but it’s tough to be political for a candidate directly.”

Brands that have historically been involved in political issues also have some wiggle room, Van Sinderen noted.

Some brands that regularly have taken a political stance have done well with that strategy because it is aligned with part of what the brand is about,” Van Sinderen said.

For his part, Matt Powell, sports industry analyst with The NPD Group, said there is one particular generational cohort that some fashion firms could score points with if they choose to be politically vocal.

“Millennials are looking for brands and retailers that align with their values, [and] if a genuine political stance is taken that aligns, it can reap benefits from this core consumer,” Powell said.

“That said,” he added, “if the political position or candidate does not align with millennials’ values they will take their business elsewhere.”