How Can Other Companies Benefit from the NFL’s Recent Genius PR Pivot?

You’ve got to hand it to the NFL.

They may send their employees into situations every single day that cause brain damage – and then lie shamelessly about it. They may have blackballed Colin Kaepernick from the league. But a brand new offensive lineman named Trump created an unexpected hole in the line and the league brilliantly ran right through it.

By taking a stand against the President a few Sundays ago, the NFL was able to pivot from being one of the nation’s most stodgy, unlikeable institutions to a symbol of independence, equality and justice. All by defining themselves – very publicly, very visibly – as the anti-Trump.

And perhaps the best way to look at the Trump-NFL feud is not by talking about social justice or morality (neither Trump, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell nor most NFL owners could care less about either) – but as the best way for an ailing brand to revive itself.

If you’re defined by your enemies, then fighting with Trump may be the best PR solution imaginable for companies and individuals who need to burnish themselves among certain key demographics: millennials, urban residents, costal elites, most of the media, celebrity influencers.

Here are a few possibilities.

Walmart

For years, Walmart has struggled to win zoning approvals to build stores inside of dense urban areas. Even though Walmart’s actual policies around hiring, compensation, benefits, promotions and the like are really no different than most big box stores, legacy and optics makes it good politics for Democratic elected officials to stand in the way. If Walmart baited Trump into a feud over immigration or health care (which doesn’t seem particularly difficult), then the same people who typically block Walmart’s market entry may suddenly see the company in a very different light.

Walmart obviously has a lot of stores in places that still love Trump. But the NFL has a lot of fans in Trump country too. And while building more physical stores may not even be a good idea for most retailers, if Walmart is still looking for a way in to big, liberal cities, a public fight with Trump could give it to them.

Uber

Uber is a story of two companies – a platform that keeps growing exponentially and a mega-startup that has been beset by cultural, workplace and management woes. The hiring of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was a very strong step towards rehabilitating Uber’s image among reporters, regulators, and some customers (although mountains of data show most riders make their choice based on speed, not politics) – and Khosrowshahi’s kinder, gentler approach to Uber’s regulatory fight in London is a good example of it (though he has to be willing to ultimately carry a big stick, otherwise just speaking softly likely won’t work).

But a fight with Trump could help repair the damage with the groups most upset by Uber’s behavior – the same groups whose goodwill or approbation will have a material impact on Uber’s valuation when it pursues an IPO. While then-CEO Travis Kalanick did resign from Trump’s economic council earlier this year, that felt like a forced decision, not a genuine fight. Given that so many of Uber’s drivers are immigrants and so many of Uber’s customers are minorities who have long been discriminated against (and literally just physically passed by) by traditional taxis, baiting Trump into conflict shouldn’t be that hard.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (and any politician or celebrity seeking relevance and redemption)

Schwarzenegger is an interesting political case study. He governed a very liberal state as a moderate Republican and managed to get a lot done. He also managed to undermine his image through various personal scandals and is now a fringe player in U.S. politics despite putting his time, money and energy behind genuine reform efforts like ending gerrymandering.

His fight with Trump over Celebrity Apprentice ratings was a good start, but there are so many better avenues for real conflict – abortion, climate change, immigration, gay rights, trade. Engaging Trump on any of them on a sustained basis (he’s had a few skirmishes) would elevate the Terminator and the causes he’s fighting for. The same holds true for virtually any celebrity on the ropes. Trump is a miracle cure for anyone with a lagging reputation.

Did the NFL actually orchestrate all of this? Probably not – it’s more likely that their very smart communications team just saw an opportunity and ran with it (the hard part probably wasn’t knowing to take a stand, it was convincing their bosses who actually agreed with Trump to run with it anyway).

But it doesn’t matter if you conceive of brilliance or just fall into it. The benefit is the same. And now the playbook is clear. If Trump could make the NFL sympathetic, imagine what he could do for brands that aren’t nearly as troubled in the first place.

Donald Trump: helping America’s companies, celebrities and institutions revive their brands, one at a time. I guess he really is putting the economy first.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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