Marketing   //   February 24, 2020

The retail brands getting political in 2020

The 2020 election cycle is in full swing, and retailers are wasting no time getting political. This week, several retailers announced initiatives revolving around the current political discourse. From offering support female candidates to pledging to give employees time off to vote, brands are increasingly becoming more comfortable taking a public stance on issues. 

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is a top example of this strategy, which was viewed as both polarizing and courageous by the public and the industry. Shortly after the former NFL player’s first Nike ad ran in late 2018, the sneaker maker’s sales spiked by 10%, bringing in revenue of $847 million.

Of course, there are plenty of studies purporting to show the link between “social causes” and brand loyalty. According to a Harvard Business Review survey published this week, customers are becoming more cautious of companies’ social stances and advocacy practices. In the survey, in which half of participants were presented with a conservative-leaning fictitious food service company called Jones Corps, while the other half were told it had progressive values, saw perception favoring the liberal-leaning company. “Their opinion of Jones Corps dropped 33%,” when the group was told of its right-leaning views, seeing as not only “less committed to social responsibility and its community, but also as less profitable.” 

Sali Christeson, CEO of women’s workwear brand Argent, which has been worn by former candidates Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris, said that the once-prevailing notion that retailers should stay out of politics is falling out of fashion. “From day one we’ve been clear about who we are and our perspective, so we’re not afraid to rock the boat,” said Christeson. “These days, if you’re not clear on your social stance, it comes across as inauthentic to shoppers.” 

While being a young brand can make it easier to “fall in the camp of being anti-establishment,” the potential of alienating certain customers along the way should be less concerning for even large retailers, said Christeson, pointing to Nike pulling off activist-driven marketing.

The move to align yourself with a political party or policy may seem risky, but Christeson said she’d rather retain the loyal customers that stick with Argent despite those liberal values. “What was once perceived as taboo or hands off is generating a level of loyalty that exceeds any industry metrics,” she said.

The shifting political views of large blocks of shoppers, especially younger ones, has especially been felt by retailers’ executives, explained Christeson, prompting them to get on board with supporting political policies. For example, last summer several consumer startup CEOs signed a letter, undersigned by Don’t Ban Equality, in a The New York Times ad to advocate for abortion access. Signed by the chief executives of Warby Parker, Postmates, Slack, BirchBox, Everlane and Glossier, among others, the letter said “restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion, threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers.”

Here are five other retailers adding their voice to the political conversation.

This month marked the official unveiling of the 2020 coalition Time to Vote members, which announced retailers across several categories promising initiatives, such as registration drives and paid time off, to encourage employee voting this election. Walmart, known for its resistance to increase employee wages, was one of several retailers to get on board. The country’s largest retailer was joined by Best Buy, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gap, Glossier, Levi Strauss & Co., and tech companies like Lyft and PayPal, among the growing list of participants.

M.M. LaFleur
The urgency for retailers to get involved in the democratic process has also spilled over to resource support of candidates, especially women, who are running this year. For example, women’s workwear startup M.M. LaFleur announced this week it’s loaning its clothes to anyone running for public office, free of charge. In an email to customers timed for President’s Day, CEO Sarah LaFleur said “We never purport that clothes help move the needle on female representation, but we want to do our part to make things a tiny bit easier.”

The She Should Run-endorsed lending program drew praise from the drew praise from Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, as well as by candidates running for local offices across the country. 

Universal Standard
Shortly after M.M. LaFleur announced its free clothing loans, it was joined by Universal Standard, the inclusive clothing startup. The brand said it’s launching a similar program to lend political candidates free clothing items, with sizes ranging from 00 to 40. “And, this goes without saying: Anyone of any gender running for public office who wants to wear our clothing should reach out! We want everyone to help everyone dress and feel like their best selves,” the company said.

Last year, CEO Yvon Chouinard promised that Patagonia, known for its environmentally sustainable practices, will throw its support behind the candidate with the strongest climate change policy. “We’re keeping quiet in the primary election, but for the national presidential election, we’re going to be very, very active,” he told Fast Company. “We’re going to spend a lot of money and basically say, vote the climate deniers out. Anyone who is a climate denier or even on the fence, vote them out because they are evil. They are out to destroy our planet, and we’re not going to stand for it.”

In a letter to customers this past October, ahead of the Black Friday rush, REI CEO Eric Artz announced several green initiatives by the outdoor gear company. Citing inspiration by a year filled of youth activists coming together, Artz outlined REI’s commitment to reduce waste and packaging, among other environmentally friendly retail strategies. “We’re rethinking the future of retail and finding ways for every REI member to take part in the circular economy with more used and rental gear choices,” he wrote. “We’re tackling waste in our own operations and in communities across the country. And we’re redoubling our efforts to eliminate unnecessary packaging in our industry.”