Much ink has been spilled about Ivanka Trump’s attempt at balancing her professional role as a businesswoman and her unofficial, yet arguably more powerful roles in the Trump White House. We have seen how the growing disconnect between the Trump brand and Ivanka’s brand—the former is associated with a man who bragged about assaulting women; the latter with #womenwhowork—have made that balancing act untenable. This was made clear when critics launched a boycott of Ivanka Trump’s eponymous clothing line last October.
In the currency of social media, Ivanka’s my-life-is-cooler-than-yours strategy worked well—until it didn’t. “You are what you wear” became the rallying cry for the boycott and, due to a dramatic drop in sales numbers, retailers Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom (JWN), Sears (SHLD), and Kmart have nixed the Ivanka Trump line from shelves. For the first time, the otherwise infallible Ivanka Trump is being seen as, well, fallen.
Yet this public failure, while obviously hurting Ivanka the business, might actually help Ivanka the brand. If she plays her cards right, last week’s series of public announcements might actually help to humanize her.
Depending on whether she chooses to rise to this particular challenge or folds her tent and goes home will be critical to whether her business can weather the storm. In the coming days, how she manages to control her brand’s damage and communicate with her customers will be closely watched, not just by her customers, but by a growing number of young women entrepreneurs who are looking for successful role models in business. They understand that coping with adversity is an unavoidable fact of business and that failures can often lead to a better understanding of what it takes to succeed.
So what should Ivanka do? For starters, she could take a page out of the book of some other executives recently threatened by PR disasters:
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
After joining Trump’s economic advisory council in December, the Uber CEO suffered massive consumer backlash when he allowed his company to cross picket lines on the first day Trump ordered an immigration ban against seven predominantly Muslim nations. The move, which was seen as an attempt to profit from the JFK airport taxi strike, was the last straw for many customers, who started a #deleteUber campaign. Meanwhile, the ride-sharing app’s employees launched a full-blown revolt. Within a matter of days, Kalanick reversed course, resigning from Trump’s advisory board and creating a $3 million legal-defense fund to support drivers affected by the ban. The takeaway: Listen to your customers and employees.
Tellingly, Ivanka has not publicly responded, a signal to her customers and employees where her primary allegiance lies. Her active involvement in the White House, in contrast to her lack of action with respect to her fashion brand, may indicate a recognition on her part that the two sides of the Ivanka Trump brand are inimical to each other. By ignoring her fashion brand, she is effectively choosing the Donald Trump brand.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Criticized for her lack of involvement in last month’s Women’s March on Washington, the Facebook (FB) COO found her personal brand imperiled. Her lack of participation was seen by many as being at odds with her philosophy of “leaning in” (she said later that she had a personal commitment the day of the march). Despite the misstep, Sandberg recovered quickly, publicly admitting that it was a mistake to be silent during the demonstration and, at the same time, announcing a $1 million contribution to Planned Parenthood. The take away: Actions speak louder than words.
Ivanka, on the other hand, hasn’t taken a stance on anything, and it’s this lack of one that is hurting her brand the most. If she’s chosen to work in support of women’s rights from a different platform—a political one in the White House—that’s fine, but she will still need her “brand equity” to be credible. By not communicating publicly, she’s showing a lack of respect for her customers, undermining their willingness to follow her to a new platform. Ivanka needs to be using every opportunity to demonstrate that she’s an effective leader, especially after her book’s release date was pushed from March to May. Her silence is even more troubling since she’ll need to be promoting it soon.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank
Under Armour’s CEO publicly stuck his neck out in support of President Trump, only to discover that it deeply offended one of his highest-paid endorsers, Stephen Curry. The NBA player, under contract with Under Armour (UAA), showed his willingness to leave a company that did not align with his values by stating, “There is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off, if it wasn’t in line with who I am.” Plank quickly issued a statement clarifying that he did not agree with Trump’s social views and reiterated the business policies that he and his company stand for, such as inclusive immigration and fair trade. The takeaway: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Few expect Ivanka to speak out against her father at this point. If she didn’t do it earlier in the campaign, it’s unlikely that she would do it now. Serving two masters is inherently tricky; Ivanka may be acknowledging this through her silence. Unlike Kalanick, Sandberg, and Plank, Ivanka Trump’s response, so far, has been one of inaction, limited to statements about her business having “experienced significant year-over-year revenue growth” in 2016. The lesson for Ivanka is that if she aspires to be a world-class leader on the public stage, then she needs to communicate like one.
There is a growing penchant among sophisticated consumers to exercise the power of the purse to punish corporate behavior deemed antithetical to their values and sense of justice. In today’s increasingly politicized business environment, companies simply cannot afford to be silent.
Instead of ignoring what her customers are telling her, Ivanka needs to publicly woo them back and explain why she cares about them. As the face of her brand, she needs to demonstrate some of that female independence she so assuredly promotes and use this setback as an opportunity to step out of the long shadow of her father. Sticking her head in the sand is not an option if she’s serious about saving her business.
Sara Weinheimer is founder of BroadMic, an angel investor, and former executive at Goldman Sachs.