NRF: Is the time right for retailers and brands to take political stands?

Discussion
Levi Strauss's Chip Bergh and Snoop Dogg at the NRF Foundation Gala 2019 - Photo: NRF
Jan 17, 2019
Tom Ryan

In sessions at the NRF show in New York this week, brands explored the payback from taking stances on hot-button political and societal issues.

Levi Strauss president and CEO Chip Bergh noted that the company has a “long history of not being afraid to take stands on social issues,” including desegregating factories in the South 10 years before it became law. Recently, Levi’s has taken stands on same-sex partner benefits, the proposed Muslim travel ban and gun violence.

Mr. Bergh reflected, “I think the CEOs of major corporations, and the companies, have a responsibility to give back. And if you do it in an authentic way, consumers will reward you.”

Patagonia has found its consumers receptive of its heightened environmentally-friendly positions — including endorsing two senate candidates for the first time in the midterms — given the “climate crisis,” said CEO Rose Marcario. She believes that, generally, companies taking positions publicly on issues “consistent with their values are rewarded for doing it.”

Ms. Marcario feels that increased transparency is important, and that the divisive state of the country calls for “more leaders standing up for things that are aspirational.”

Dick’s Sporting Good’s decision last February to end sales of assault-style weapons and guns to anyone under 21 after the Parkland, FL school shooting had a negative impact on top-line growth in 2018, according to Ed Stack, CEO.

The decision was a culmination of several incidents since the Newtown, CT school shooting, the ”emotionally moving” Parkland tragedy and finding out the shooter bought a handgun two months before the Parkland incident at one of its stores. Mr. Stack added, “People talked about it as a tough decision, but actually it wasn’t because the right decisions are never tough decisions.”

In a keynote, Scott Galloway, founder of L2, cited Nike’s lauded marketing campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick as an example of how brand activism has emerged as a shrewd marketing tactic.

The comments came as a new Sprout Social study found that 66 percent of customers want brands to take a stand on political issues, particularly on social media.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has it become more beneficial for brands to take stands on societal and political issues? What advice would you have for brand and retail company leaders when it comes to taking a public stand?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I say it depends on the brand and the issue."
"On political issues … NO! True, some people will love you, others will pay no attention to you and others will detest you."
"Yes, I’m 100 percent for it – if your brand is going after successful young people, you need to be socially progressive."

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25 Comments on "NRF: Is the time right for retailers and brands to take political stands?"


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Art Suriano
BrainTrust
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, that opinion is up to the individual. I strongly feel that businesses should stay clear of political views. The simple reason is not everyone is going to agree with you, and those that disagree will stop doing business with you and most likely make attacks on social media. So where’s the gain? Many times what starts as a positive gesture becomes distorted in the media and people can quickly get the wrong point of view. So I would stay clear of a public campaign promoting any political topic. Individually, those working for a company should be able to express their opinions, make donations and support any group they wish. We live in a free society, and we’re supposed to have freedom of speech which means EVERYONE is allowed to voice their opinion, but when a company takes a position, they most likely are not representing everyone that works for them. Let it be up to the individual and not the company to express their opinions.
Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Taking a stand on social issues is the ultimate brand bravery, and should be applauded. It helps build cohesive culture in many companies as well. REI is a great example, even as they take a giant shopping day off the calendar! Sure, brands may lose a few fans, but the zealots will always defend for brands they care about, and that influence is authentic and free!

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust
There is a big difference between social issues and political issues. Brands that identify with social change and social issues attract their target customer. Those who believe in their social causes and therefore, support the brand who is taking action. However, many brands that support social issues do not alienate those consumers that are not fully in line with their cause. Therefore, all types of consumers may use the brand and not think twice about the social aspect. You don’t have to be fully bought into an organic or natural lifestyle to shop at Whole Foods. Political issues are far more divisive and can cause the brand great harm. Politics tends to be more partisan than social issues and can cause anger. Consumers are a bit firmer in their political views with very little leeway. Nike caused a firestorm with their Colin Kaepernick ad. However, when you look closely at that ad, it was not making a political statement or a social statement. It fit into Nike’s “Just Do It” messaging. The controversy was using… Read more »
Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Agreed Phil that there is a marked difference between social and political issues (though in some areas the lines do blur). I think Burger King does a great job of staying in the non-polarizing social space with their hidden-camera PSA-style content covering topics like bullying, the Pink Tax, and net neutrality. But while those make for entertaining content, the deeper emotional connection is not really reached in those cases.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Social maybe, ecological, absolutely, political; definitely not! Agree with Art. Religion and politics are for the individual to practice and preach, not for business entities. However, giving employees the day off on Thanksgiving and using or selling ecologically sustainable and recyclable materials don’t polarize the constituency.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

As our country seems to be getting more and more polarized, it’s very difficult for any company to take a stance on an issue and get total buy-in from its customer base. Does that mean they shouldn’t? No. The data shows that the next generation expects the companies they do business with to take on issues dealing with social responsibility. There may be certain issues that are too polarizing for companies to take on but for the majority of issues, customers want to know where the customers they do business with stand and those companies should have that voice.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Yes the time is right. A 2018 Edelman Study showed that “belief-driven” buyers have become the majority across all age groups and income levels in every country surveyed. I would be surprised if that trend-line did not continue its upward climb for 2019.

The truth is that the time has always been right for bold brands to voice opinions that are in line with their core beliefs, but now data allows for more calculated decisions and the channels which with those messages are shared allows for larger community building and outward customer identification.

This is good news for brands who are able to execute well in this arena as the emotional connection will always win out over the transactional one in the long-term.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
I say it depends on the brand and the issue. Brands that have a strong moral voice align well with Millennial and Gen Z thinking. And some issues are near universal — civil rights for all people and protecting the environment for example. Others are more specific — say, anti-animal testing. Sure, Levi Strauss could launch a campaign around protecting lab rats from cruelty, but it wouldn’t resonate with its core brand positioning. Procter & Gamble on the other hand could craft a much more authentic message around testing and cruelty. So my advice would be to find issues you can speak to with authenticity that align to, and reinforce, your core brand promise. And my other piece of advice is to do your homework BEFORE you endorse a cause or a spokesperson. One final caveat. We live in a polarized society so any controversial position — pro or con — will lose you a significant share of the market. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is a classic example. So, brands need to be clear-eyed before… Read more »
Rick Moss
Staff

I agree, Ryan, about the need for authenticity. While I admire what Gillette is trying to do with its masculinity ad, I don’t see why being a razor manufacturer authorizes them to be experts on gender, bullying and “me too” issues. Same goes with [brand name here] Super Bowl beer commercials that insist on slow-motion American flag waving and somehow trying to equate beer consumption with patriotism. I find the suggestion of a connection insulting.

On the other hand, REI has a stake in fighting the demise of our National Parks, and I expect they know a lot about the battle and the players involved. That, to me, is an authentic stance.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

Social, yes. Political, No. But don’t take on an issue just for the sake of the issue. Take it on because it aligns with your brand and that your employees are aligned with it as well. Be authentic. For my 2 cents.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

Totally agree that it depends on the brand. If your brand is outspoken and willing to take a stand, fine. If aligning to political or social issues doesn’t align with your brand, the answer is no.

Political alignment in a brand can be powerful. On one hand, you alienate the folks who disagree. On the other, you strengthen your loyalty with folks who agree. And a lot of times, if the people who disagree really love the product — it ultimately doesn’t matter. Example: Chick-fil-A.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

There is a difference between being political just for the sake of taking a position and making it known and having a belief and building a business around it. Patagonia’s position was part of its original brand promise before it was political. They are just being true to their core beliefs. Employees can agree or not. Customers can buy or not. Tree huggers can choose not to buy from polluters. If a political position becomes part of a brand promise, customers will exercise their opportunity to buy…or not.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Jeff, is the ecology a political issue? I think some have have tried to make it one but it really isn’t.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Unfortunately, I think it is. Ecology = global warming = political. Ecology = EPA = political. Ecology = oil = political. I’ve never understood why we want to consume finite resources (oil) as quickly as possible and embrace renewable resources (solar) as slowly as possible.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

On political issues … NO! True, some people will love you, others will pay no attention to you and others will detest you. Somebody tell me where the upside is on this.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Several of my colleagues tried to separate political from social issues. These days it is quite hard. Certainly P&G’s Gillette video is social in my book, but apparently many are seeing it as political. Nike’s campaign with CK is seen as political, but it addresses Nike’s values.

My take is if the message fits with the product, just do it.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Patagonia didn’t take a risk — they serve a market segment where what they did was smart marketing. We shouldn’t give them too many kudos for it.

I know this goes against the “purpose” bandwagon which is claimed to be “proven” but the proof relies on tremendous fallacies all documented in Rosenzweig’s “The Halo Effect.” There is no proof.

Companies need to do good — and that good starts with shifting focus from single-minded “shareholder value” approaches to their duty to serve employees, investors, the category within which they work, the communities within which they’re located, etc.. And if there’s some left over after doing those things well, then do something good with it.

(I’ve written more in “Diagnosing the Purpose Disease.”)

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Yes, I’m 100 percent for it – if your brand is going after successful young people, you need to be socially progressive. As I wrote earlier in this post on LinkedIn, these retailers are doing what government seems unable to do – build a better world. Yes haters are out there but realistically the young are looking for brands that embody their world view. That is increasingly both progressive and rooted in a city. Some will want to point to Dick’s sales decline as pushback but it was more the simple fact they stopped selling gun SKUs, not sentiment.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

The majority of political stands companies make generally lean left, as the media
goes out of their way to destroy conservative values that a company may express (hello Chick-fil-A). I know where I stand, but it is useless trying to push a platform that is conservative, unless you want scorn from the media, so I stay clear of promoting anything political in my advertising. We can agree or disagree about many thoughts about our planet, culture, or global vision, but nothing good comes out of it, just like discussing the “Wall,” so I will continue to be myself and treat folks who come into my business with respect and old-fashioned values that my parents taught me. My father who passed away on Monday always told me to separate your personal beliefs from your political beliefs, and you’ll be fine.

Rich Duprey
Guest
While I feel that generally, companies should steer clear of taking political positions — in today’s world there is no difference between “social” and “political” — they’re all conflated. There are certainly companies that can get away with taking a position, but the business has to know who their customers are. Starbucks can take a certain position because its clientele is largely made up of like-thinking customers. Dick’s Sporting Goods, on the other hand, did nothing but anger its customer base. Those to whom it was pandering were largely never going to shop its stores to begin with, so it shot itself in the foot for no good reason. Similarly, Gillette’s latest attempt to jump on the coattails of the MeToo movement was a gratuitous slap at its primarily male customer base to win social media virtue signaling points. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dollar Shave Club saw a spike in memberships (notably, Harry’s deleted an earlier tweet that had pretty much the same message as Gillette’s after seeing the backlash Gillette got). One can… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

My advice — the same as it’s been the other 386 times this issue has been raised: stick to selling.

Obviously some “political” issues like tariffs, minimum wages, and zoning cross over into operations, but that’s why leaders are paid the big bucks … to use their good judgement.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Warning: don’t let your brand promise become polarizing (read: political).

Jeff Miller
Guest

There are a few key things that need to be in place in order to take a stand and weigh in on political issues and sadly very few brands have these elements.

First, it has to be authentic and long term and not just a campaign or series of tweets and instagram posts with no actual execution.

Second, the leadership needs to be on board but also needs to spend the time to be transparent with stakeholders like employees on why they are doing this while also making space for employees who may not have the same political or societal views to be heard and felt like even though they may not agree that they understand why and what is expected of them.

Finally, you have to put your money with your mouth is and actually make an impact. There is risk and speaking out is not for everyone but when authentic it can be another part of what connects a community or creates a sense of belonging with a brand and a customer.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

I can accept brands taking stand on social issues. Levi Strauss’s Chip Bergh spoke about his company’s “long history of not being afraid to take stands on social issues.”
But political issues should be avoided. In the photo atop this RetwilWire story, Bergh is seen shaking hands with Snoop Dogg at the NRF Foundation Gala 2019. As many people know — but perhaps not Bergh — Mr. Dogg shot a clown dressed as President Trump in a music video. No matter what your political leanings, such a video is plain wrong. I would not be surprised if Mr. Dogg was visited by the Secret Service or FBI.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Societal, yes, especially given today’s consumers and use of social media, being able to demonstrate common value with your customers can help develop customer loyalty. Political gets tricky though, especially with the blurry line of politics and societal issues, but explicitly supporting specific candidates and parties I think should be avoided. Legislation support is a different story since that is more issue related.

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Braintrust
"I say it depends on the brand and the issue."
"On political issues … NO! True, some people will love you, others will pay no attention to you and others will detest you."
"Yes, I’m 100 percent for it – if your brand is going after successful young people, you need to be socially progressive."

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