Business banning Trump after the Capitol invasion shows the power and flaws of brand activism

Trump bans show brand activism’s power… and its flaws

Since the horrifying invasion of the US Capitol last week, amidst angry debate about accountability, there has been a steady stream of businesses banning Donald Trump and far right groups. It’s a spectacle that’s both thoroughly justified and deeply hypocritical. And it starkly displays the possibilities and flaws of brand activism.

Social media bans

The dam broke when Twitter and Facebook/Instagram suspended the Troll-In-Chief. The bans were initially temporary – Twitter for 12 hours and Facebook/Instagram for the remainder of his presidency. But the two social giants soon one-upped each other until both suspensions became permanent.

Other platforms quickly piled in: Reddit, Tiktok, Twitch, YouTube, Shopify – the list goes on. Let’s be real – the race to make a moral stand has at times stretched authenticity. What was Donald Trump’s favourite Snapchat filter, I wonder? How many stars might he have given Tenet on Letterboxd?

The power of these brand actions is undeniable – for proof, look no further than the outrage pouring from Trump’s supporters. And in most cases, the bans can make a real difference: delegitimising hate groups and disrupting their communications and funding.

But it’s very much a case of closing the barn door after the orange horse has bolted.

Given the public clamour to suspend Trump’s account for the past 4 years, Twitter’s virtuous declarations this week seem more than a little disingenuous. Indeed, Facebook and Twitter must bear significant responsibility for fuelling the fire which finally broke loose on 6 January.

So how much should we applaud their actions? Is it really brand activism, or an attempt to cover over a devastating failure in social responsibility?

The Forbes’ flex

What has been more genuine and groundbreaking is the response from Forbes magazine. The day after the riots, Forbes published an editorial warning the business world: “Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists … and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet.”

Forbes response to the Capitol attacks is a genuine and groundbreaking exercise of brand activism
An excerpt of the Forbes' editorial

There’s a lot to like about this as a new tactic of brand activism.

There’s a long history of political staffers retiring to fields of grassy green dollars in the corporate world, but this now seems unlikely for Trump’s acolytes with the threat hanging over businesses that, in Forbes’ literal words: “Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”

I mean, wow. That’s a power move.

It leverages Forbes’ position to create true pressure for change, and it combats the short term memory syndrome that plagues political & corporate debate.

The shame is it’s still a move that’s all about punishment, rather than prevention.

Had Forbes issued this warning after the debut of “alternative facts” way back at Trump’s inauguration in 2016, perhaps it could have created a more meaningful difference? Perhaps the pressure of self-interest for Trump staffers might have induced them to resist his waves of disinformation that led us to this point?

Hope for the future

Maybe one small positive to come out of this sad chapter is the demonstration to the business world that the public supports genuine brand activism.

But that activism needs to be more forward-thinking, pro-active and courageous. Because in an age when corporations are bigger than countries, the world needs them to step up as stewards.

And in return, there’s an opportunity to create a distinct, vibrant brand from true moral bravery.

What does your business stand for? We can help you find your “Why?” and live it everyday through a culture that bonds your team.