Tim Lince

Protecting brand reputation and managing the possible legal fallout from crisis situations are some of the main responsibilities of an in-house trademark department. One recent element that has created headaches for numerous brands in that regard is the tweeting habit of US president-elect Donald Trump, and specifically his regular calling out of companies and brands. As he prepares to take office on January 20, we take a look at how brands can react should they be the unwitting target of a Trump Twitter tirade.

Since announcing his candidacy for the US presidency on the Republican ticket in June 2015, Donald Trump has become notorious for his uncensored and passionate Twitter outbursts, cementing his reputation as the anti-establishment candidate who does not communicate in the traditionally safe, controlled way of career politicians. However, his tweets calling out specific companies have become regular and had a tangible impact for those targeted. In the last 12 months (both before and after his election win), Trump’s social media crosshairs have been aimed at high profile brands including Amazon, General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Macy’s, T-Mobile, Toyota and Rexnord (not to mention the countless media outlets he has criticised). Within hours of many of these tweets being sent, the impact could be measured in dollars. In December, following Trump criticism on Twitter, Lockheed Martin lost $3.5bn in market value. A similar tweet about Boeing caused a $1 billion stock market hit (although it recovered on the same day). Earlier this week, Trump rallied against General Motors and Toyota (threatening a "big border tax" should they build cars outside of the US), which saw significant share price drops for both companies.

Of course, a drop in share price is often recoverable – but a PR hit can be longer lasting. For example, the over 300,000-strong community of Trump supporters on Reddit have an ‘official’ list of companies to boycott, with many on the list added following a Trump social media call out. Named brands can often be inundated with thousands of angry messages following a Trump tweet – both on official social media accounts and also to employees (mainly CEOs) who have public Twitter profiles. Such lists are not uncommon (there is a similar boycott list on the other end of the political spectrum) but a more unique development is the creation of an internet browser extension – called Cuckblock – which notifies Trump supporters that a web-page they are on belongs to a perceived anti-Trump company.

Broadly, it is expected that, as president, Trump will target his Twitter tirades to brands in certain sectors – such as those in areas of trade, immigration, healthcare, and defense. For the trademark department at brands in those sectors then (and, perhaps, beyond), preparation is key and - as we discussed in the latest issue of World Trademark Review magazine (now available online to subscribers)  - there are a number of preparatory measures that brands can consider in case they are unwittingly dragged into the political arena in the future.

Rob Frankel, strategist, author and dubbed “the best branding expert on the planet”, suggests that preparations should focus on the overall brand strategies, which “defines what the brand is and – just as importantly – what the brand is not”. This, he argues, “goes a long way to protect the brand from being misperceived by anyone attempting to co-opt it”, and should dictate the tone of any response to a Trump tweet – or whether to respond at all. As Eric Fingerhut, trademark practice group leader at Dykema, explains: “Each specific brand must know whether any [response] is going to be a ‘one and done’ or be more extensive, such as joining the conversation. Ultimately, trademark counsel must ensure the brand is in the best position to speak out and prevent commercial misuse of the brand.”

The response should therefore be jointly managed and maintained “by the communications team and the trademark department”, argue Andy Holdsworth, associate partner, crisis and litigation, and Stuart Leach, managing director, geopolitical, crisis and litigation, at London-based Bell Pottinger. Special consideration should be given to a response not being seen as too pro or anti-Trump (or of any one political position). As Simon Miller, Telefonica O2’s deputy head of public affairs, told Marketing Week: “I think it is important that brands are not put in a position where they are seen to be of a certain political hue or colour. We have 450 stores and employ 11,000 people in the UK across the full patchwork quilt of political colours and we need to have a dialogue with those audiences.” To put it in an American context, restaurant consultant Aaron Allen warns that “when you get into politics – whether you’re Republican or Democrat – you’ll end up alienating half of your customers”.

However, despite this, brands also need to be prepared to take a risk – a route that those in the legal department will no doubt quiver at. As Stan Steinreich, president and CEO of Steinreich Communications, wrote last month, “corporate response needs to change” in this new age of a tweeting president, suggesting that “instead of employing balanced language” (or language carefully vetted by the legal team), companies “need to be more provocative”. He added: “No doubt this will go against the grain for corporate executives who fear it will add fuel to the fire. When the tweet says, ‘cancel the contract with Boeing’, an appropriate response would be, ‘Mr. President, we honour our agreements, but happy to work with you on a resolution’. When threatening a company who needs to move jobs out of the US, would that company be better to respond, ‘Talk, don’t balk. Mr President, happy to discuss ways we can stay’.”

We may be entering a new era of US presidential communications. Ground was broken in the past with Calvin Coolidge delivering messages on the radio, John F Kennedy’s polished use of television, Ronald Reagan's mastery of analogue mass communication and Barack Obama’s embracement of digital campaigning. Now, Donald Trump is all set to be the first truly “social media president”. While many will welcome such unfiltered messages from the person in the top office, others fear the consequences – both intended and unintended – of such outbursts. For private companies that could face the ire of the new president (and are not used to being ‘called out’ by the commander-in-chief), it is time to evaluate response strategies – and the trademark department is in the perfect position to kickstart that effort.

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