The presidential election of 2016 was perhaps the most contentious ever, with the less popular candidate ultimately winning the job - and it sparked an increase in political debate that has yet to be extinguished. Many businesses added their own fuel to the fire by increasing their political activity, and while that sounds like a risky proposition, a study from Sprout Social suggests that it's at least somewhat important to about two-thirds of consumers for brands to take a stance on divisive political issues. So, with customers gravitating toward brands that speak up, what does that mean for you?

Running headlong into the political fray may not be the strategy you're looking for to win new business, and such an approach is likely to alienate and create resentment among the customers you do have. Instead, carefully selecting the causes your company can champion will help form a stronger brand identity and a more loyal and passionate base of customer advocates.

Naturally, brand managers should be careful about using politics to project a company's voice. But if the brand has firmly established values and it makes sense to comment on relevant current events, then doing so can help ignite the emotions of a customer base. If you're struggling to determine when your brand should get political, keep these things in mind:

1. Consider which issues truly align with your brand's values.

At the end of last year, you might remember hearing that Patagonia's website landing page featured the declaration "The President Stole Your Land" in response to the Trump administration's decision to reduce the size of several national monuments in the state of Utah. The company even filed suit against the administration in an effort to block the decision. Judging by the immediate jump in sales, the company's actions unquestionably resonated with Patagonia's audience and aligned with its brand.

But before you follow the outdoor retailer's lead, carefully consider the issues that your brand weighs in on to ensure that these are meaningful opportunities to connect with customers and make a difference. Brett Hyman, president of NVE Experience Agency, a marketing firm that has worked with a host of national clientsadvises: "Marketers should resist the urge to comment on a hot-button issue for the sake of it and get involved only when doing so aligns with the brand's values and avoids alienating its most valuable customers."

2. Be strategic about crafting your message.

From fonts to tone, your message should be consistent across all channels, which means it needs to appeal to your customers on a number of different levels. It's important now more than ever to find the right tone for your brand's commentary. When it comes time to craft your messaging, ensure your content captures the essence of your brand. It can be helpful to start by coming up with an array of adjectives that describe your brand. Then, round up your team and cut out the fluff to find the three to five that resonate the most.

These adjectives are the foundation of your brand's persona, and every blog article, bit of website copy, and social media post should take them into consideration. Even the pictures you associate with your brand should reflect that persona. When it comes time for political commentary, ensuring it's consistent with the rest of your brand's messaging will prevent the alienation of loyal customers who might otherwise disagree with a stance that you take.

3. Consider your motives.

It's normal for companies to be profit-driven -- after all, if you're constantly losing money, you probably won't be in business long enough to make a difference (with some notable exceptions). But keep in mind that today's consumers are constantly inundated with advertising, and they've become experts at spotting a fake. Taking a political stand in an attempt to increase profits is a misguided plan that's likely to backfire.

On the other hand, if you feel genuinely moved toward a cause, your customers will sense your sincerity. The ones who agree will rally behind you, while those who don't can at least respect your integrity. For instance, Bill Penzey, CEO and founder of his namesake company, the country's largest independent spice retailer, first began using the company's catalog and later its newsletter and social media accounts to share op-eds voicing his social and political views. Since the election, he's been an outspoken opponent of Trump administration policies. Penzey takes a consistent stance on issues he cares about -- and offers customers a free spice for listening.

Politics and business have historically been like oil and water. In the past, companies kept them separated largely out of fear that saying the wrong thing could cost a fortune. Now, times have changed, and customers are looking for brands that stay up-to-date on what's happening in the world. Because consumers want their dollars to go to businesses they believe in, companies will have to get used to taking a stand and, more importantly, knowing when to do so.