It can be hard for the self-employed to separate their personal interests from their businesses. You’re passionate about what you do—it’s what makes you so good at it—and your work is a big part of your life.
But, as a number of big companies have learned, it’s all too easy to alienate customers in today’s polarized climate. When Starbucks announced it would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order barring refugees from several countries, the coffee giant was swiftly greeted by calls for a boycott.
The list goes on: Budweiser, Macy’s, Nike, Coke and Pepsi have all been the targets of consumer boycotts from both sides of the aisle for taking political stances, real and perceived.
Last year, during the heated presidential campaign, a Manta poll found that 34% of small business owners make their political views known to customers and employees. Of those who share their views, 65% said they do so to promote positive values in their communities, and 64% said they want their business to reflect their values.
The challenge comes when those personal values aren’t shared by your customers.
“We should take pride in our morals and values, but small business owners need to remember that their brand is at stake, and brands should always try to remain as neutral as possible,” said Brandon Seymour, founder of Florida-based marketing agency Beymour Consulting. “My best advice would be to avoid having these sorts of discussions at all costs. Not only do you risk alienating your customers, but you also risk shutting out your employees who may have different views than you do.”
“I am a firm believer that personal politics should not be mixed with business,” agreed AJ Saleem, owner of Suprex Tutors Houston. “If customers want to bring up political topics, it is best to change the subject. Find something that is unrelated [to discuss] instead. Nothing good comes out of talking about politics.”
Discussing politics on social media can be especially problematic, added Melissa Ward, managing partner of New York-based digital agency NewWard Development, because it gets in the way of your real goal: marketing your business.
“It’s not a question of whether you’ll be boycotted, but rather knowing the reason you are on social media,” she said. “If you use Facebook for business marketing purposes, commenting on the latest political fray is not a relevant part of the conversation.”
Some business owners may choose to express their beliefs with the intention of appealing to customers who feel strongly about an issue. That can be an effective form of cause marketing, but business owners should be aware of the risks of limiting their potential audience to those who agree with them.
“Who I am as a person plays hugely into my business and how I interact with clients. At this point in time, politics are also personal,” said Maggie Germano, CEO and founder of Maggie Germano Financial Coaching. “I want to attract clients who share my feminist beliefs, as my beliefs will influence how I work with them. So far, my clients and followers have appreciated my political opinions.”
Business owners can also act on their values and personal beliefs without being overtly political. Eva Spitzer, owner and designer of sock brand Peony and Moss in Seattle, dodges polarizing conversations—even on topics she agrees with—but still supports causes she cares about.
“We give away a pair of socks to someone in need for every pair sold,” she said. “There’s been a lot of hate spreading in the world recently, and that’s our way to spread love. Our customers can interpret that how they want.”