Watercooler: Retail Politics
Credit: Kagan McLeod

Remaining nonpartisan may seem like the safest business approach, but sometimes it makes sense to take sides, says columnist Steve Burgess

Unless you peddle buttons, cardboard signs or television airtime, or you own a hot-dog stand near a polling place, this month’s provincial election is unlikely to influence what products you sell. And yet as politics becomes more polarized, not every company chooses to stay above the partisan fray. Nor can every business make that decision for itself.

Vancouver’s Storm Crow Tavern/Alehouse didn’t want to stay neutral. After the election of Donald Trump, the bistro pub flew straight into the battle with a series of cocktails mocking the 45th president of the United States. There was the Tax Return (which, unlike Trump’s, was delivered upon request), the Tiny Handtini (with a cotton-candy comb-over), If She Wasn’t My Daughter and one named for a general expression of dismay that we will simply call the [bleep]. According to Storm Crow proprietor Jason Kapalka, who previously co-founded PopCap Games before selling it to Electronic Arts Inc., the response was almost universally positive. “We were pretty surprised at how many [bleeps] we sold, considering it’s just three shots of vodka and a bowl of Cheetos at an arbitrary price point of $20,” he says. “But people thought it expressed their feelings uniquely well.”

It helped that Kapalka was donating 50 per cent of profits to relevant local charities, like the LGBTQ resource centre Qmunity and the Immigrant Services Society of BC, because it made people feel he wasn’t just profiting off a disaster, he notes. “We had a tiny handful of angry Trump supporters get mad and threaten to boycott the place,” Kapalka says. “I think one wrote us a bad Yelp review complaining we ‘pandered to minorities worse than Trudope.’”

Standard retail gospel recommends avoiding politics. Why alienate customers? Nordstrom Inc. insisted that its recent decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s clothing line was purely a business decision driven by slow sales. But it still reflects the reality that political affiliation made the Trump name anathema to many Nordstrom shoppers.

A Starbucks Corp. policy to hire 10,000 immigrants inspired an online boycott drive. But Carreen Winters of PR firm MWWPR suggested that supporters probably weren’t no-fat-latte drinkers anyway. “People talking about a boycott and an actual boycott that attacks your business are two different things,” Winters told MarketWatch.

Still, it’s a tricky environment when a Budweiser ad that tells the story of its immigrant founder can inspire a “Boycott Budweiser” hashtag. Apparently some Trump supporters were surprised to discover that none of the Pilgrims were named Budweiser. Do they know where pizza came from?

Uber Technologies Inc. boss Travis Kalanick reversed a decision to join Trump’s team of economic advisers when #DeleteUber gained online traction. “As the kerfuffle with Nordstrom shows, it’s pretty tough to avoid getting sucked in one way or the other,” Kapalka says.

As a rule, connecting a brand to politics is risky, says David Ian Gray, founder of Dig360 Consulting Ltd., a Vancouver-based retail market research firm. “That said, if a retailer or brand really knows their customer base is predominantly political with an aligned point of view, then perhaps it is actually on-brand to make a statement.”

Kapalka understands his clientele. “I know some bar owners in places like Florida,” he says. “They said they would have been crucified for pulling something like this. We felt pretty sure that Vancouver was not a strongly pro-Trump demographic.”

Gray believes many of these controversies have to do with the nature of Trump himself—a brand turned president. “Trump is forcing business to reconcile opposing issues in a way they have never previously experienced” he says. “Nordstrom was pulled into the fray because the Trumps were marketing themselves through the store, both before and after the election....[T]he emotional energy of consumers is being pulled one way or another by Trump.”

As for Storm Crow, it may not be done messing with the menu. “Depending how crazy things get, I’d like to introduce a Steve Bannon cocktail, consisting of mayonnaise, whiskey and broken blood vessels,” Kapalka muses. “But we’re still working on the recipe.”