From “Rock the Vote” to “Vote the A**holes Out” — In the U.S., Business IS Politics

November 19, 2020

More than a week after Election Day in the United States, the world is still waiting to find out the official winner of the presidential race. Most news organizations called it for the democratic candidate several days ago. But the current president has yet to concede. 

One thing is already clear, though, no matter what happens between now and Inauguration Day: a greater percentage of Americans turned out to vote than in any election in at least a half-century. 

One cause of this — among many causes — is the unprecedented involvement of private brands in get-out-the-vote campaigns.  

Traditionally, companies considered entering the political fray too much of a risk. Remember what Michael Jordan once famously said about his reluctance to speak out on politics? “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Today, however, many consumers — especially younger ones — want to know where their favorite brands stand. It’s not just about the products. For these consumers, it’s about ethics. It’s about the world we leave behind.

In other words, it’s political — from the food we eat to the shoes we wear. 

Make way for Generation Z

Gen Z recently passed millennials to become the most populous generation on the planet. And this is a generation who cares a lot about social and political causes, from criminal justice reform to LGBTQ rights. 

This is also a generation who is extremely active online. For brands to reach them, they need a strong social media presence. And on social media, identity — including political identity — is everything.

The stakes couldn’t be higher than they are this year. Donald Trump’s style of governing is polarizing. Most voters seem to either love him or hate him, whereas in previous years, many Americans remained quite indifferent, with voter turnouts significantly lower than European counterparts. 

Add to this the pandemic and lockdown that followed. The spring saw groups of protestors, some carrying assault rifles, demonstrating against closures and mask mandates. Then, in May, a white police officer killed an unarmed Black man in Minnesota for allegedly using a counterfeit 20$ bill in a convenience store. Soon protests were erupting throughout the country, some of which became violent. 

Against such a volatile backdrop, it’s no wonder the 2020 U.S. election has attracted so much attention — from voters and private companies. 

Let’s get political — sort of

When a brand wades into politics, it puts itself in danger of alienating consumers — and not only those who might disagree with a particular position. Young consumers have become notoriously cynical towards all forms of marketing. They’re quick to detect the least whiff of inauthenticity in a political appeal. 

Yet in these polarized times, the risks of remaining on the sidelines are arguably even more severe.

Most brands have so far staked out a sort of sweet spot between activism and neutrality: by encouraging participation in democracy without supporting a specific party or position. This trend actually goes quite a ways back in time — to 1990, in fact, when MTV first decided to work with Rock the Vote, a nonprofit organization, soliciting the help of pop stars such as Madonna to encourage young people to vote, or at least be aware that an election was underway.

For one example of this kind of pro-democracy advocacy in the lead-up to the 2020 election, consider the shorts that outdoor clothing company Patagonia offered its customers. The shorts, which have a label inside reading “Vote the assholes out,” sold out soon after they became available.   

Put your schedule where your mouth is

Yet simple get-out-the-vote slogans, along with emails and notifications encouraging consumers to vote, are much more effective at creating positive impressions than they are at actually turning out voters. A 2018 New York Times article reported that as many as 2 million people didn’t vote in the 2016 election because they didn’t have the time, largely due to work. 

In other words, at the same time that many companies are encouraging consumers to become politically active, they are literally preventing them from voting by requiring them to work. And young, politically savvy consumers are easily turned off when they spot anything that looks like hypocrisy.

This is why more and more brands are escalating their political game. A recent report in Vogue Business looked at how various fashion brands were encouraging, not only their consumers, but their employees to vote.  

Ralph Lauren made Election Day a holiday. Old Navy, Warby Parker and Tory Burch announced they would pay their employees if they volunteered as poll workers.

Approximately 1300 companies have signed onto a pledge, which began back in 2016 as a Patagonia initiative, to give their employees time to vote. The list includes such fashion giants as Tiffany & Co. and Nike, but also players from outside the fashion arena, such as banking company Morgan Stanley and wireless audio pioneer Sonos.  

A necessary risk?

A lot of people are feeling that social order is in decline. They feel that governments have abdicated their responsibilities. They worry that the climate is being irreparably harmed and social norms irreparably eroded. 

It’s essential that brands today know where they stand on the issues of the times and make these stances visible to the public through concrete action, such as giving employees time off to vote.

Consumers are more likely than ever to embrace a brand because of politics — or likewise, to boycott them. Staying silent is no longer viable — not in today’s hyper-partisan environment.

“What we have found as a company,” JJ Huggins, spokesman for Patagonia, recently told Vogue Business, “is that when we do the right thing, we sell more.”

Of course, taking a stand will always be a risky proposition, even as it becomes essential. 

Speak out — you risk making people angry. Get caught pandering to consumers’ political causes — the backlash could be fierce. Perhaps worst of all, keep silent — be overlooked.

To read more about how Streetbees helps brands gain a bottom-up, holistic understanding of consumers’ wants, needs, and decisions, click here.