Using politics as a means to promote one’s business can either be genius, or devolve into a social and financial minefield. But one of the most famous buildings in American political history, the Watergate Hotel, is having fun with its notoriety. Last year, after a major renovation and over four decades after a third-rate burglary ended up with the first and only U.S. president to resign from office, the Watergate’s new owners offer gleeful reminders of the building’s role in history. Hotel room key cards sport the moniker “no need to break in.” Pencils are inscribed with “I stole this from the Watergate Hotel.” Even the hotel’s switchboard references the date of the break-in, which occurred on June 17, 1972 (617-1972).
Recent events, however, are still very much raw to those on both sides of today’s divisive political issues. But that does not mean some businesses cannot have some fun – they just need to tread carefully.
Take the Bird, a bar in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Anytime Donald Trump fires a high-level White House staffer, the Bird offers $4 happy hour specials. The joint was busy earlier this summer, with Anthony Scaramucci quickly dismissed, followed by Steve Bannon.
Other attempts to make light of political issues have backfired, however. Hennessey’s Tavern, in the Orange County town of Dana Point, wanted to spark a dialogue over the president’s plan to build a border wall. Unfortunately, the promotion, which involved having patrons climb an inflatable wall in order to score a “green card” good for a free drink, did not go over well with many customers and online social media commenters. Retorts ranged from “casual racism” to a “disgusting display of insensitivity.” The bar’s owner explained that was not his intent at all, but the overall reaction was highly negative.
Meanwhile, a bar in northern Florida took a stand on another explosive social issue and has been lauded as a hero.
Earlier this week, a bar in Gainesville attempted to counter white supremacist Richard Spencer’s visit to the University of Florida. All patrons had to do was score two tickets to Spencer’s speech on campus: if they showed up at Alligator Brewing instead of going to the event, the bar spotted them a free beer. “Speech that condones, let alone promotes racial supremacy has no home in America,” the bar posted on Instagram. The bar’s employees had a near-skirmish with an event organizer who caught on to this scheme and allegedly streamed live video accusing them of calling him slurs, but the tension soon abated. Alligator Brewing insisted that any protests related to Spencer’s appearance in Gainesville be peaceful and non-violent – and in the meantime, the bar scored many new fans.
Fans can prove to be fickle, however. For one business owner in western Massachusetts, the optics of appearing in a photo with President Trump have created a nightmare for him – along with a rapid plunge in sales.
Dave Ratner is the owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet City, which since the mid-1970s has sold those exact products: soda and pet food. Long active with the National Federation of Businesses, he was excited to learn that the Trump White House was supposedly going to make it easier for small businesses to purchase health insurance. Ratner became even more excited with the foundation asked him to represent the organization at a White House ceremony.
The problem is that Ratner ended up in the widely-circulated photo of the president signing the executive order that seeks to end subsidies for health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Ratner claimed his appearance was a bait-and-switch, he did not know about the executive order signing, and bemoaned what he said was a political move that could actually hurt businesses like his with higher insurance costs.
But the backlash, which has been more than unfair, has also been relentless. Angry social media posts and angry calls to the stores have flooded channels, and Ratner claims he may even have to close some of his chain’s locations. He has since written an op-ed explaining his point of view of what happened and his insistence that he does not support Trump.
Ratner’s struggles can be attributed to bad luck and being used for political purposes. But for business owners who end up dabbling in politics as a means of promoting their companies, the four (some say seven) “P’s of marketing” apply. Especially place, positioning and people. Be sure you know your market well – or your market may quickly leave you and your business.