I read a blog post recently from a marketing/PR specialist: Brands and Politics Don't Mix and I have to confess that I've kind of been stewing about it this week.... while making buttons ;)
Of course, part of our brand has become our protest buttons so that might automatically exclude us from the topic of conversation. And maybe, even though we are brand, we are a brand of just two sisters, unlike, say, something like Chic-Fil-A which is so much more extensive. Maybe it works for us to state our views because it's just the two of us, and what I say does apply, for the most part, to both of us. It is harder to imagine that any statment made by a big corporation actually does speak for every single employee. And yet, we are essentially assuming that the weight of the proclamation comes from the size of the corporation: Chic-Fil-A speaks and it is speaking for all consumers of its product, all its employees, all its shareholders. Ah, yes, I can see how brands and politics become a tricky thing.
Still, there's no doubt that politics were not nearly as much a part of our brand in December of 2010. That we HAVE mixed politics with our brand.
I do realize that I am spoiled to have grown up in Madison, to live in my little island (as some people like to call it). In February last year, it felt like we were taking a tremendous risk to devote our table and our window to protesting the actions of the Governor. In other places, such a risk may well have been punished. The media is filled with tales of boycotts, smashed windows, stalkers and barrages of vitriolic emails... At the same time, we felt very strongly about taking a stand and about supporting our customers, many of whom we expected to feel close-to-immediate and negative results of having Scott Walker for Governor. It was a personal matter (as politics are) but it also felt like a business matter. Ultimately, as a small business owners, we are always thinking about our actions and how they necessarily relate to building our business. For us, it seemed that anything that would have an effect on our customers WOULD have an effect on us and was therefore not something we could be neutral about. I will return to the notion of neutrality later.
Our actions were not without consequences, mostly some under-the-breath mutterings; a few scoldings and some people turning on their heels and walking out the door. I am sure that we lost some sales as a result of our position. Meanwhile, the consequences of an increased connection to many of people, a sense of gratititude and solidarity - these have been very positive results of the risk-taking, not to mention the thousands of buttons we have sold and the many new customers we introduced ourselves to. Since last February, I have had more Union men come through our doors than I ever would have believed possible (there have been many Union women, too, but there's something about this store that seems to present particular hurdles to men - sometimes they stop dead in their tracks in the doorway and refuse to even step inside, and not just the 4 year-olds). So, yes, I am very much aware and grateful of the fact that what seemed like risk actually ended up being a pretty great business move. I am well aware that what seemed like a risk was taken in an environment which really wasn't that risky - like when I deliver the children's message at church when public speaking makes my heart race but I know that I am presenting to a receptive audience, to people who love me even if I do fumble and lose track of what I was saying. For us, Madison is that receptive audience, it is our home, it is our family, it is certainly well within our comfort zone. So perhaps it wasn't such a risk after all.
And as for neutrality, well, there are an assortment of quotations one can find if you search for "silence" and "neutrality." I am quite sure there are those who will say that I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation if I compare silence and neutrality over who will govern the state of Wisconsin, or even our nation, to the neutrality of Switzerland to the Nazis (though I'm pretty sure that most citizens of Switzerland actually DID have an opinion one way or the other).
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Dietrich Bonhoeffer
"If you are neutral in
situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If
an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are
neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
Bishop Desmond Tutu
In any event, I'm feeling rather skeptical about neutrality. I have a hard time believing that a person really could be neutral or impartial. I can believe that a person can see valid points in both sides of an argument, might choose not to enter into an argument with certain people, might see shades of grey when others are asking them to speak in black and white, but I'm not really sure there's long-term good in taking a so-called neutral position. Maybe it would be possible if our world was different but for the most part inaction and neutrality do confer a certain judgement upon a situation. Even the newspapers with their so-called neutrality: do they not have employees? customers? are they not then invested in how much they have to pay their employees? how many customers will buy their papers? how many businesses will want to advertise? I doubt their neutrality and, frankly, I'd rather know where someone stands so I can judge for myself what sort of bias might exist. My old boss used to say: more knowledge is always better. And even though sometimes I like the "ignorance is bliss" approach, I do think that the more we know about each other, the more we find the ways that we are living in common, the more we learn of each others' joys and hardships, the more we know that we're really all the same even as we are each totally different.
I think in the business world it is common to try and maintain neutrality - there is a sense that picking sides will cause you to lose customers from the other side. And yet, there are no end to the instances of businesses sticking their noses (and wallets) into the political world. Just because their silence gives off an air of neutrality doesn't at all mean it is genuine. Have you seen how much money is spent on lobbying these days?! Ultimately, every decision we make involves picking one side or another, involves including some and not others: we are not a hardware store or a sporting goods store and thus have already narrowed our demographic. Even though as a business you might like to think that you appeal to everyone (100% of the world is your demographic and a potential customer), I'm more of the mind that if you try to please everyone all the time, you will fail; and thus you should just do your very best, commit your full heart to your vision and your journey, and the people who appreciate your work will find you.
In any event, I do question that any person or business can be neutral. But, WHAT IF we could learn to work together DESPITE the different sides we are on? I'm just not sure we do a service to ourselves and to others if we are not living our full and genuine selves. If we cannot come to a point where we say, I don't like his politics, but I do like his donuts. Do we really want to be the ones who dismiss the 47%, the 10%, the 88% who don't agree with us in this one particular (though big) respect?
I have had a few people on Facebook inform me that my political views mean they will steer away from our shop. In the small term, that is my loss because I won't get a sale from them. In the larger term, they have just lost the opportunity for both of us to learn that Democrats and Republicans might actually be able to find other things in common - a shared interest in creating things, or in supporting local artists. I am fortunate because I have had the chance to learn that, to experience the wide range that exists between the person who storms up to the counter and scolds me for my politics, and the people who have had tears in their eyes as they tell me how much they appreciate our actions. In that very wide in-between ground there might not be any news stories but I think that is the place where we will find the ability to do more than just yell back and forth at each other, or be like the Zax, remember them?
Honestly, I feel that for much of our country, the dialogue, the media, has been hijacked by extremes on both sides, by people jumping to conclusions and generalizations, and doing so in rather vitriolic ways. It's perhaps a more interesting story to present only conflict and the idea that there are only two sides and n'er the twain shall meet. But I'm not really sure that's useful. Everyone knows Dr. Seuss' story of the Zax: one going North and the other going South, and there they stand in each other's way, to this day, unbudged in their tracks. Is that what we really want for this country?
If we decline to discuss politics because we are afraid of negative repercussions, then it seems less likely that we are the land of the free and home of the brave, and more likely that we have ceded to the terrorists of speech who lurk within our own lands. In another country, if we saw that people were not speaking out because they were afraid of repurcussions, we would pity them and think about sending in our military.
And then there's the matter of silence, which I have been less and less inclined to adhere to. Naturally, when someone has some rigid ideas that are opposite of yours, speaking up is unlikely to change their mind. And there's certainly no need to speak out in ways that are antagonistic or hateful. Yet in many cases, people seem to take silence for agreement. For myself, I find it grating when people presume to speak on my behalf ("small businesses feel x, single women are thinking y, 40somethings must be wanting z"), especially when the statements are exactly opposite of the way that I feel. My resentment is when silence is responded to with assumptions, when mostly (for me) it just means that I couldn't think of the right words fast enough (the bane of an introvert's existence).
I had a short discussion with a long-time customer of ours early on in the protests. Basically, I posed something political on Facebook and she simply replied that she felt different from me. We CAN agree to disagree. I don't at all think that everyone needs to think exactly the same as me. I don't demand that people who disagree with me read all of my opinions and posts. I don't necessarily enjoy hearing dissenting opinions, but I consider that part of living in a democracy. Just as I feel it is important to state my beliefs, I do not begrudge that customer the right to state hers. It is when it gets into hostile, threatening and abusive language that I am troubled. But there is a lot of space between silence and arguing. Additionally, I think if we are silent, there is the risk that a person (myself included) will just proceed on the assumption that everyone thinks the same way. Of course that's oversimplifying, but I think if would be better if we were all not silent, not hostile and concerned about our own egos, but also always open to the differences between us, and learning how to still get along and be a part of a functioning community.
So, I'll just have to agree to disagree with the author. Because I think policis and brand should mix.