Big brands studiously seek to avoid politics, but few seem nimble enough to escape the President Trump vortex. The president sank Boeing shares with a single tweet and dissed Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s brand, inspiring a Nordstrom boycott. Cozy up too closely to the commander-in-chief, on the other hand, and you might find your company facing a stinging backlash from the majority of Americans who oppose him. (Just ask Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.)
In this unfamiliar, fraught terrain, brands from Intel to Ford, Under Armour to L.L. Bean, are struggling. Now, Morning Consult, a polling firm that can at least claim to have been less wrong than many others about the presidential race, is swooping in with a promise to save big companies from their own missteps. The crucial question facing brands now: Will it cost more to alienate Trump or to make nice with him?
Like many other polls, the firm had Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote, but its polls consistently showed a closer race than most.1 In the end, it had Clinton winning the popular vote by just three percentage points. (She won by a little more than two.)
“We nailed it,” insists co-founder and CEO Michael Ramlet.
These days, Morning Consult is conducting 200 online surveys each about more than 500 companies every day to gauge public opinion on those businesses. The company compiles deep demographic data—everything from respondents’ zip codes to presidential picks—using desktop and mobile polls that Ramlet argues are more accurate than increasingly obsolete landline surveys. It then pulls in social media buzz and news articles about those brands, funneling everything into a single dashboard that’s launching today.
Ramlet says the tool enables businesses to distinguish between a social media-only pseudo-crisis and one that could actually have a material effect on their public images. This month, for examplme, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank praised President Trump’s business agenda as a “real asset.” Basketball’s golden boy Steph Curry, himself an Under Armour endorser, publicly disavowed Plank’s statement: “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et.’” Before long, #BoycottUnderArmour was trending. Yet Morning Consult’s polls showed that the company suffered only a small dip in its actual favorability rating before it returned to normal.
“Twitter blew up,” Ramlet says. “But Twitter’s not necessarily a representative sample of anything other than coastal elites who are upset about everything on a daily basis.”
Compare that blip to the recent meltdown over the revelation that Wells Fargo collected millions of dollars in fees for fraudulent accounts. Within months, it went from most to least popular bank in Morning Consult’s rankings.
“Wells Fargo’s in an honest-to-god crisis,” Ramlet says.
Whether it’s gauging the public response to a presidential tweet or a self-inflicted wound like Wells Fargo’s, experts say this kind of real-time brand tracking has become a necessity. “A tool like this is invaluable in today’s climate,” says Marlene Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The social media spin cycle, she says, has dramatically sped up the timeline in which a scandal or public relations misstep can escalate into a full-on boycott. Quarterly brand-tracking reports don’t move at the speed of Twitter.
Towns adds that consumers today, particularly liberals, are feeling more empowered to vote with their wallets at a time when their party is virtually powerless in Washington. “This has become a way for people to express their displeasure or pleasure, as the case may be, with their dollars,” she says. “It’s forcing many to take a stand where they may not have in the past.”
One brand that’s in a particularly precarious position these days? Trump Hotels. According to Morning Consult, its favorability rating is consistently below the hotel industry average. For what it’s worth, the company’s famous founder has already shared a few thoughts about negative polls. At least he’s staying on-brand.
1Update: 9:39 AM ET 2/28/17 This story has been updated to clarify that Morning Consult predicted Clinton would win the popular vote.