Brands have traditionally steered away from politics for the same reasons you don’t get into it with your angry uncle at Thanksgiving. No matter which side you land on, discussing politics will always alienate someone—a risk most brands aren’t willing to take. Until now.
This year, combined with the mother of all crises, brands are embracing electoral politics with “get out the vote” marketing.
From Anthropologie to Vineyard Vines, dozens of brands across sectors including technology, retail, and entertainment are on board with initiatives to get people registered to vote, get their ballots in early, or get to the polls on November 3.
Some—Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Birkenstock, among others—have made Election Day a paid holiday to ensure that their own employees can participate in the election. Others such as Gap, Levi’s, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Tory Burch, and Vineyard Vines are paying employees to work at polling sites.
In spite of the cynicism of some consumers calling out companies for attempting to profit off of the advocacy of democracy, many of these same brands are selling vote-themed T-shirts, jewelry, and face masks.
A number of brands have used their owned social media pages to gently remind consumers to check their voter registration or include links to voting information in their marketing emails. Even the social media platforms offer to answer your questions on when to vote or where to drop your mail-in ballot.
Digital, social, and broadcast nonpartisan campaigns, “Run to Vote” from Under Armour, “Vote Actually” from CW, “Stand United” from Gap—encourage civic participation at every turn.
Ubiquitous websites from brands such as Footlocker and Live Nation let users check their voter registration status, get vote-by-mail details, or sign up for election reminders. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” created BetterKnowABallot.comto help voters navigate wide-ranging election law in all 50 states. Airbnb offers pandemic travelers a microsite with voter resources.
Whether “get out the vote” marketing initiatives help or hurt brands with consumers is the subject of an ongoing debate. At its current scale, the movement is a relatively new phenomenon that started in earnest with the midterm elections in 2018, so data is hard to come by.
It’s clear, though, that the trend of corporate support to boost voter turnout is piggybacking on the widespread activist marketing around social justice issues that have been prevalent this year. A number of high-profile corporations have found their voice and, it seems, their comfort level with a particular scope of politics that champions democracy and civic engagement.
“Encouraging registration is a way for a corporation to project a civic-minded, nonpartisan image at little cost,” said Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies voting.
Perhaps no brand has coupled assets to voter advocacy like Patagonia. With its provocative "Vote the A-Holes Out" tags on some clothing items, the outdoor clothing retailer is building on its reputation as a pioneer in corporate political activism and leveraging its popularity to call for change. Founder Yvon Chouinard said the appeal to voters on the tags refers to politicians from any party who deny or disregard the climate crisis.
The challenge for any consumer brand is that conservatives who don’t read beyond the headlines buy hi-loft jackets and fleece pullovers, too. For many consumers, their black-and-white perceptions matter: voter advocacy is a Democratic tactic and voter integrity (i.e., suppression) is a Republican principle.
That puts a brand that encourages and empowers people to vote in the crosshairs of detractors who could post harmful content or negative opinions about the brand, its products, or its advertising.
HOW BRANDS WITH VOTER ENGAGEMENT STRATEGIES FARED IN 2018 MIDTERMS
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, hundreds of brands that appealed to consumers and their employees with “get out the vote” programs saw a win-win. Not only did the pitch for greater civic participation get more voters to the polls, but it also helped some brands raise awareness and strengthen relationships between employees and shareholders.
HBR studied eight companies with voter engagement strategies and looked at consumer- and employee-focused activities. All of the organizations worked closely with nonprofits to create programs that were on-brand, externally and internally.
Overall, the “get out the vote” initiatives elicited positive feedback on social media, in stores, and through employee communication channels. A couple of the critical takeaways from the study were:
Focus on participation over politics. Make it clear from the start that the goal is to strengthen democracy, not advocate for a particular candidate or party. Educate participants that encouraging voter registration and voter turnout are not inherently partisan activities.
Stay on-brand to maintain authenticity. Craft your own messages about voter engagement efforts to make them unique, memorable, and clearly something your brand would do. For maximum effect, the overall look, feel, and voice of a civic engagement program needs to be consistent with your brand’s overall message to consumers.
KNOW HOW CONSUMERS REACT TO YOUR BRAND IN REAL-TIME
The limited data that exists indicates that the encouragement of voting as a concept is generally unlikely to incite a wave of negative social media content from a brand’s customer base, as long as it steers clear of endorsing a candidate.
In the real world, however, the best-laid plans can be thwarted by the partisan activism of an executive or investor that can cause a brand to be swept into a politically-charged moment quickly exploited by online instigators. These instigators are also likely to denounce any corporate voter advocacy program as tied to progressive values they vehemently oppose.
Brands need to have their finger on the pulse of their customer base and their wider web audience with a comprehensive solution that detects potentially disruptive risks to the business.
Knowing exactly what’s happening around your “get out the vote” efforts takes a partner who offers early-warning risk intelligence. A solution designed to protect a brand’s online activities can also detect and block harmful content or negative opinions, as well as the individuals or groups behind them, that can compromise marketing assets, brand reputation, or consumer engagement—in real-time.
This intelligence can also help provide insights on the success of civic engagement efforts and offer data on brand awareness, customer relationships, and shareholder interaction.
In the end, the decision comes down to whether the C-suite thinks your brand looks good in red, white, and blue. One participant in the HBR study also noted there are drawbacks to standing on the sidelines during a national election that has captured the public’s interest like no other.
“We had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we taking a risk by not engaging? By not celebrating Election Day?’ I do think ‘doing nothing’ is the real business risk now.”