Skittles, Trump And A New Corporate Approach To Hostile Political Engagement

20/09/2016 10:45
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Skittles last night became the latest brand thrust into the limelight as collateral damage from the chimpanzee-with-a-machine gun Donald Trump campaign.

Donald Trump Jr - imagine the bully from an 80s teen movie set in an exclusive private school - tweeted the meme: "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

So far, so grim. So well done to Wrigley's corporate affairs team, who were swift with their rebuttal:

"Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing."

Where consumer brands would have once feared to wade into a partisan debate, this political cycle on both sides of the Atlantic has seen some companies take a more muscular approach. Recently the NFL was quick to refute Trump's assertion that they had complained to him about the scheduling of the Presidential Debates, which the Republican candidate had claimed were "rigged" to clash with televised games.

And we have seen similar corporate bellicosity in the UK. Witness Virgin Trains' aggressive pushback to Jeremy Corbyn's hapless attempts to make a point about train capacity, or G4S' refusal to offer security to Labour Party Conference following criticism from the Party, which briefly threw the event into chaos.

What all these have in common is that brands and businesses are no longer willing to favour positive dialogue with politicians in all circumstances. And nor should they - while a business' starting point should always be biased towards constructive and sensitive engagement, there is no commercial benefit to becoming a political punch bag. So these companies are quite right to start fighting back.

There is, perhaps, a political consideration here as well. Whereas major organisations have traditionally sought to inject some political balance into their public statements and engagement, there is little downside from ignoring, or slapping down, a weak and unelectable political force. That's clearly the Virgin Trains and G4S calculation in the UK - neither company is ever going to be regulated by a Corbyn government.

Whether Donald Trump will ever be in a position to knock down Skittles is another question.