Today’s hyperconnected audiences routinely share ideas that spark a national dialogue. These unpredictable opportunities for engagement happen in an instant.
Take, for example, Heineken’s Open Your World campaign. The ads featured people from different sides of the political spectrum talking about their differences over a beer. They capitalized on our collective need—that welled up in social and traditional media channels—to address our political divisions in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election. It was a wildly successful and well-executed campaign.
Companies like Heineken that are able to enter the conversation quickly and authentically get an opportunity to connect with audiences in a deep and meaningful way, and in a way that more and more people are paying attention to. A 2016 annual study by the Global Strategy Group found that public awareness of corporate stances on political events hit an all-time high in 2016, nearly doubling since 2014.
But the possibilities for this kind of connection emerge only for those who are prepared. How do you do it? Believe it or not, some of the lessons I’ve learned as a life-long student of auto racing are incredibly applicable.
What looks random isn’t.
To the uninitiated, auto racing looks like high-speed highway traffic: a stream of cars following each other nose to tail around a circuit, with the occasional and seemingly random passing of one car by another. Then at the end, someone wins.
But the passing isn’t random at all. It’s actually a nuanced undertaking that combines astute observation, orientation and risk assessment. It takes tremendous patience, followed by instant, decisive, overwhelming aggression. Occasionally a pass stretches the limits of physics and leaves fans awestruck. When a pass is poorly calculated, the driver may end up having to reset and tuck back in. This is a moment where there can be a spectacular wreck.
It’s the same in marketing. What are the relevant circumstances? What risks need to be considered? When is the right moment for action? Especially in the high-stakes world of brands taking stands on political issues—where a misstep can turn your stakeholders against you in a flash (hello, Pepsi)—readiness, timing and determined execution are critical for success.
Prepare to an extreme degree.
Successful racers know the very edge of their cars’ capabilities. They train for the track using simulators that equip them to hit every braking point or turn entry. Drivers will even walk miles of racetrack to memorize every foot. They know that there’s no time for learning when the race is on the line.
Racers are just as fastidious about maintaining their cars. High performance depends on maximizing every opportunity. Any distraction can take them out of the competition They obsess over tires, brakes and chassis settings. They double-check every bolt, wire and hose.
When it comes to taking a stand, preparation is just as essential. Should anyone look under the hood of your organization, you need to make sure your corporate responsibility program is in order, your values are front and center and practiced by everyone in your company, and your mission statement is modern and meaningful to your customers and your employees.
Plan your moment.
When one racer passes another, the move often follows laps of planning. For example, in his blog, legendary driver Emerson Fittipaldi wrote:
I used to plan my moves meticulously. If I found that I was closing on a car in front, as I did so I’d watch the way the other car was moving on the racetrack in front of me. I’d analyse the way it was slowing under braking, the way it was turning in, the way it was changing direction, the way it was putting its power down, everything. … As I closed up behind him, I’d begin to calculate my options.
Here’s the thing: In racing, even though passing on the straight is easier, passing most often happens in the turns. Don’t discredit a moment just because it’s difficult if it can be a competitive advantage. The moments when it’s easiest for you are also the moments when it’s easiest for everyone else.
When thinking about the stand your company will take, it pays to do the difficult thing, to take the difficult stand, because it gives you the biggest competitive advantage. Don’t settle for easy. Don’t do what your competitors are doing just to keep up. You should be looking to do something that’s hard for anyone to copy.
The moment flashes. Timing is critical. Hesitation cannot come from fear of failure. But accounting for risk cannot be abandoned either. Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest drivers in history, once said, “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, competing to win.”
If you are competing at the edge of your ability, know precisely where the edge is. Critical course corrections will likely be needed. There’s an old Indy 500 adage: “To finish first, first you must finish.” And much like a race car, the closer a company’s effort is to the limit, the faster and finer the corrections must be to stay in the lead.
Purpose-driven marketers out there, don’t hesitate. Trying nothing at all gives your critics a chance to put words in your mouth. Determine where you’re going, study the move, and when the time is right, go for it. Decide your stand and take it.
 The Political Consumer, J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, November 2016.