Should You Mix Retail and Politics?
Updated: May 12
Conventional wisdom dictates never mix business and politics. However, for retailers and their customers, some mixing is inevitable. Every day, shoppers vote with their wallets, choosing which stores to buy from and which stores to pass over.
For consumers, there are now more retail choices than ever. In today's supercharged political climate more people are aligning their dollars with companies who share their values. Traditionally, weighing in on divisive issues would alienate customers, and even hurt sales. Now, staying silent on issues your customers consider important can be just as harmful to your brand.
A recent study by Sprout Social shows that two-thirds of shoppers want brands to take a stance on social and political issues.
The Sprout Social study also shows that 80 percent of liberals think it is important for brands to take a stand on social media, compared to just 39 percent of conservatives. Sprout’s data shows liberals are more likely than other groups to show brand loyalty towards companies they agree with and are more likely to boycott brands they disagree with.
In 2016, a social media campaign called #GrabYourWallet popped up in response to the infamously leaked conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush on the set of Access Hollywood. The campaign encouraged people to boycott companies with direct financial relationships with the Trump family, such as retailers who carried Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.
The campaign influenced spending so heavily that several companies such as Nordstrom, Wayfair, and Jet stopped carrying Trump products as a result. After Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, President Trump said, “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom,” causing many to question what role retail should play in politics.
"The President Stole Your Land"
Patagonia is an outdoor and recreation retailer that has a long history of siding with conservationists. In 2017, President Trump decreased the size of two national monuments in Utah. He reduced the protected land in Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and the protected land in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by almost 50%. Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia responded, “I’m going to sue him.” Patagonia’s website also went dark with the message “The President Stole Your Land.”
Patagonia believes in protecting public land for "recreation, conservation, and wildlife." They received plenty of backlash from their message "The President Stole Your Land." But, they also strengthened their relationships with core customers who also value conservation and wildlife protection.
Costs of Staying Silent
For many companies, staying silent is not an option either. According to an Edelman Earned Brand Study, 65 percent of belief-driven buyers, which amounts to half of the consumers worldwide, will not buy from a brand when it stays silent on an issue they feel it must address.
Daniel Korschun of Drexel University says in Fast Company, many people “find it hypocritical for a company that claims to be ‘guided by core values’ to then withhold its position on a political issue.”
Uber’s actions in 2017 are a perfect example of when failing to act can go wrong. After President Trump first announced his travel ban from Muslim-majority countries in early 2017. Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick acknowledged concerns and said he would raise the issue “this coming Friday when I go to Washington for President Trump’s first business advisory group meeting.” Rival company, Lyft pledged $1 million to American Civil Liberties Union and publicly denounced the legislation. As a result, a "DeleteUber" movement started on social media. New York Times reported that as many as 500,000 Uber users deleted their accounts within one week of the start of "DeleteUber" campaign.
Failures of Sincerity
Daniel Korschun of Drexel University continues, “Though our current political environment is polarized and contentious, most people still find failures of sincerity more troubling than differences of opinion. As long as a company is not being deceptive by obfuscating its beliefs, consumers can be surprisingly tolerant of a company that holds an opposing view.” If your company has a set of core values, shoppers expect you to live up to them.
Though Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign and resulting lawsuit is an extreme example, the company has a history of protesting fracking and standing up for other environmental issues. They also donate 1% of their total sales or 10% of their profit; whichever is more, to environmental groups. If Patagonia didn’t protest the reduction in protected land, they would not be standing up for what they believe in and therefore lose credibility with their core customers. Overall, customers are more likely to respect brands they perceive as honest and having integrity regardless of whether you share political beliefs
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Shoppers expect retailers to get involved when the issue at hand impacts customers or employees. For independent retailers, the best way to keep brand integrity is by getting involved in the local community. Instead of posting your support for a presidential candidate or piece of legislation on Facebook, show your community you care by taking part in neighborhood efforts. Support local causes important to you and your employees by making monetary or in-kind donations, sponsoring teams and events, volunteering your time, or hosting fundraisers. Actions that make a positive impact on your local community will speak louder to your customers than any political stance, or lack thereof.