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Wayfair is just the latest example of brands getting burnt by politics

Daniel Roberts

Wayfair, the Boston-based online furniture retailer that went public in 2014, this week found itself squarely in the crosshairs of the fiercest political controversy of the moment: border detention camps.

It started when more than 500 Wayfair (W) employees discovered the company was selling beds to BCFS, the contractor running the detention camps. In a letter to Wayfair leadership, the employees who signed said, “We believe that the current actions of the United States and their contractors at the Southern border do not represent an ethical business partnership Wayfair should choose to be part of,” and demanded, “We want to be sure that Wayfair has no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice.”

The employees did not like Wayfair’s response, and on June 26 staged a walkout. CEO Niraj Shah sent a brief letter to employees that said, in part, “As a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate... This does not indicate support for the opinions or actions of the groups or individuals who purchase from us.”

In other words: Wayfair didn’t apologize, didn’t step back, and attempted to avoid taking any kind of political side. It did eventually announce it will donate $100,000 to the Red Cross.

In 2019, “Work is political”

Some pundits see the entire scandal as unfair to Wayfair (“a depressing sign of our times” and the “politicization of every corner of American life,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes), while others think Wayfair’s response is insufficient and unacceptable. Some consumers on social media are threatening to boycott.

But it is increasingly difficult, once a company is caught up in a political debate, for the company to stay on the sidelines or sit on the fence.

Empleados de Wayfair marchan hacia la Plaza Copley durante un paro laboral en Boston, el miércoles 26 de junio del 2019. (AP Foto/Charles Krupa)
Wayfair employees march at Copley Plaza in Boston, June 26, 2019. (AP/Charles Krupa)

It has happened countless times over the past few years, and while the phenomenon predates the Trump presidency, many chalk up the increase in such instances to America’s current political divide.

In 2019, “work is political,” says Beth Monaghan, CEO of Boston-based strategy firm InkHouse. “And it’s easy for organizations to forget that that is true.”

“We live in a ‘polarized economy”

In the past two years, it has happened to a slew of consumer brands that would normally never find themselves issuing political statements in any context: Tic Tac, after candidate Donald Trump was caught on tape saying he would pop a Tic Tac before kissing a woman without asking; Tiki, when white nationalists toted Tiki torches during the violent rally in Charlottesville, N.C.; Keurig, when it pulled its advertising from Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News, and Hannity fans responded by destroying their Keurig machines.

It happened to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank after he made what he thought was an innocuous remark about Trump on CNBC shortly after Trump’s election: that having “such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.” Papa John’s, after its chairman John Schnatter blamed flat pizza sales on the NFL player protests, found itself labeled “the official pizza of the alt-right.”

Of course, some brands have been getting political by choice, not by accident. Nike knew what it was doing when it launched a new ad campaign around Colin Kaepernick. Dick’s Sporting Goods surely anticipated the political response when it yanked assault rifles from its stores. And Bank of America this week announced it will stop financing private prisons and detention centers.

Whether by choice or against their will, American companies are at the center of the political debate more and more—and need to prepare for that ahead of time. Too many companies, Monaghan says, act reactively, not proactively. Once consumers are already angry, embattled companies “go to their attorneys, and they don’t act like a human. If you work with human beings, you have to be aware of what are the hot-button issues in the news today.”

The trend is only going to continue, Monaghan says—an easy prediction. “As long as we live in this polarized economy, we’re going to see it all the time.”

Daniel Roberts is a senior writer and on-air host at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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