For decades, large businesses have taken a clear position when it came to their relationships with governments, political institutions, social issues and especially US presidential elections:
Each four-year cycle, every protest, debate or trending topic picked up by the likes of CNN was just another moment in which the Fortune 500 ranks stayed as far away from politics and “thorny issues” as possible — at least publicly.
People have long expected political endorsements from their newspapers, not brands. But times have changed. Sixty-six percent of shoppers feel it's important for brands to take public stances on key social and political issues, according to a 2019 report from social media brand platform Sprout Social. This is especially true when it comes to social media; 61 percent of consumers surveyed by Sprout Social said it was important for brands to take a stand on social platforms specifically.
For some consumers, it's all about power: the less control we feel we have over what's happening in our nation's capital, the more desire we have to reaffirm our own ability to have political impact. And rather than trying to influence politics directly, people can now simply align with the brands that share their values by commenting on a company's Instagram post, using a hashtag — and maybe even buying something, too. Ultimately, it's a parallel way to "vote" and be heard.
What’s more, consumers are bombarded by political news at a speed and scale never seen before. Talking heads with political "takes" dominate our televisions and saturate our phones. This can create a sense of overload, but it also means consumers are more "informed" about — or at least more engaged with — the political issues affecting their daily lives. And amid growing distrust of government institutions, these same people are turning to brands, with which they often have closer and deeper connections than they do with their political representatives.
Brands like Nike and Gucci are stepping up to the plate, both out of moral obligation and because they see opportunity by taking a stand on social issues that their customer base feels passionately about, whether that’s gun-control in the case of Gucci’s decision to support March For Our Lives, or race in the case of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. Then, there’s corporate peer pressure. Once peers take a stand on difficult issues like immigration, human rights or race relations, sitting on the sidelines looks less like prudence and more like cowardice.
In February 2018, just days after a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school killed 17 people and injured 17 others, Dick's Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell assault-style weapons — and that it would no longer sell any guns, period, to customers younger than 21. As one of the country's largest sporting and outdoor goods retailers, Dick's had to take responsibility for its actions: Dick's Chairman and Chief Executive Edward Stock stated that the retailer did legally sell a shotgun to the Parkland shooter in November 2017, and while it wasn't the gun that was used in the shooting, he writes, "it could have been."
To be expected, the blowback was swift. The National Rifle Association condemned Dick's, claiming a threat to the Second Amendment. By November, its net sales had taken a slight downturn, from $1.94 to $1.86 billion. But its shares? In its third quarter that year, it earned 39 cents a share, up from 35 cents a year earlier. And that's not to mention the quake it prompted on social media, which, for today's digital consumer, is questionably as impactful as any shares. With Stock's statement came an avalanche of celebratory tweets. Of almost 343,000 tweets that included the Dick's Sporting Goods' handle in the day following the company's announcement, 79 percent showed a "positive sentiment.” Suddenly, Dick's had entirely shifted its public perception in the minds of its moral-driven consumers. But it had also attracted a whole new audience that, well, probably would have written the store off.
No wonder businesses — be they bona fide corporations or small-scale operations — feel torn between two choices. Brands have values, whether they publicise them or not. So, the question becomes, do they ignore those values altogether for fear of seeming political, or stand behind them by taking a stand on political issues and risk alienating customers or employees?
Neither option seems great. But there’s another way. With the right election-year approach, businesses can turn 2020 into an authentic, cross-market brand and consumer opportunity, rather than a minefield. How? The best way to address politics is, quite simply, not to start with politics.
Businesses don’t need to endorse candidates, and they definitely don’t need to weigh in every time a candidate’s name appears in the headlines. Instead, companies should start by looking in the mirror and identifying the core values that inspire their customers and employees alike.
When the former is the bottom line, it’s easy enough to discount the latter. But employees are more important than anyone, even the businesses who employ them, may realise. As the literal and figurative operatives behind the curtain, employees and their fulfillment are imperative to the longevity of the company. In a 2019 study by Porter Novelli, a public relations and marketing agency, 79 percent of Americans reported feeling a deeper connection to companies with values similar to their own. Eighty-eight percent would purchase products or services from that company, while 70 percent say they’d want to work for that company.
Patagonia, of course, is the shining example. Since 1973, the outdoor apparel retailer has been designing clothing and gear to be enjoyed alongside Mother Nature. A paragon of environmentalism decades before “sustainability” became a buzzword, Patagonia has spent 40 years focusing its activism close to home. The company has long worked locally, supporting grassroots activists working to find solutions for the climate crisis. But in 2017, they broadened their scope, suing the White House for rolling back protections on national monuments. The move was driven not by Patagonia’s politics, per se, but by their deeper moral compass. And because that moral compass is aligned with their own core product offering and expertise, it comes across as authentic, something consumers appreciate now more than ever.
A mission statement does not a mission make, however. Words require action. And businesses need to find real, tangible ways to live those values and express them publicly, regardless of the political implications. When Nike cast Kaepernick in its 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, the brand didn’t just tell us to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” They lived it, experiencing more than their fair share of blowback before the business value of the move became clear in both sales revenue and stock market performance.
With earnings and livelihoods on the line, that can be scary. After all, it is human nature to protect our vulnerability. But in a climate where authenticity is more important than ever, there is no way to “play it safe” quite like sincerity.
Institutional values have long been siloed away from a company’s core mission. But it is 2020, and there is a new, critically important US presidential election on the horizon. Companies have increasingly little choice but to live up to their principles, especially as the political landscape becomes increasingly polarised and neutrality is increasingly off-putting.
Brands can still take a technically bipartisan approach, avoiding outright endorsements of candidates or parties by distilling their values and aligning with relevant issues that speak to them, whether that be gun-control, like Gucci, or environmentalism, like Patagonia.
Those companies that don't will struggle to navigate a turbulent 2020, while those that do will be best positioned to seize an unprecedented opportunity to connect with their customers, motivate and retain employees, and stand out in a crowded field.
That's the way to win in 2020, regardless of what happens in November.
Hildy Kuryk is the founder of Artemis Strategies, a civic engagement consultancy, and was previously the Executive Director of Communications at Vogue and Teen Vogue.
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