Companies (and #Brands) Have a Responsibility to Stand Up to Bigotry
It’s a common refrain: don’t talk about money, religion or politics in mixed company. Ignoring this rule can result in awkward, painful and downright infuriating conversations—not to mention splits between family and friends.
These topics have the power to divide and antagonize. And yet, we see an increasing number of businesses and creative professionals taking a clear stand on political and social issues.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
To fight injustice and hatred is to be socially responsible, especially when you’re a company with significant resources at your disposal. Compassion is something that should transcend politics and business. Whether you ride a donkey, an elephant, or something in between, it’s on us all—individuals and corporations alike—to be kind to one another and stand up against hatred and bigotry. That’s just a no-brainer.
But even beyond that, companies need to realize that they can’t have it both ways. It’s not morally acceptable to engage with consumers on social media as if you’re their BFF, then refuse to care about the issues that matter to them most.
Take social issues regarding race, for instance. America has long been hailed as a melting pot and millennials illustrate this perfectly. They make up 27% of the total non-white population and 43% among those of primary working age. They are the most racially-diverse generation in this country’s history.
Further, a 2015 survey concluded that 49% of all Americans—regardless of age—considered racism a major problem in the United States. Staying silent sends a message to nearly half the population that you are apathetic to an issue they feel is important.
But isn’t politics bad for business?
This is the excuse that’s been touted by brands for decades. Michael Jordan allegedly told a friend that he wouldn’t publicly endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt for North Carolina senator in 1990—even though his opponent was a segregationist—because, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
But there’s plenty of evidence to show that taking a progressive viewpoint doesn’t hurt sales. On the contrary; consumers are actively looking for brands that are on the right side of history. In fact, 91% of young adults say they would switch brands to support a company associated with a cause. This same group of consumers could account for $1.4 trillion in spending by 2020—that’s 30% of all retail sales. [Ed. note: MJ eventually came around.]
These brands are clear on where they stand.
After Donald Trump’s victory in November, designer Sophie Theallet posted an open letter to Twitter declaring that she would refuse to dress First Lady-elect Melania Trump. She stated, “the Sophie Theallet brand stands against all discrimination and prejudice. Our runway shows, ad campaigns, and celebrity dressing have always been a celebration of diversity and a reflection of the world we live in. I am well aware it is not wise to get involved in politics. That said, as a family-owned company, our bottom line is not just about money. We value our artistic freedom and always humbly seek to contribute to a more humane, conscious, and ethical way to create in this world.”
“As a family-owned company, our bottom line is not just about money.”
Theallet, who often styled and designed for Michelle Obama, went on to encourage other designers to also withhold their services from Ms. Trump. Similarly, designer Kaelen Haworth donated money from a recent sale of her clothing line to 17 organizations opposed by Trump, including Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter.
In Milwaukee, a spice company named Penzeys made headlines when its owner, Bill Penzey Jr., sent an email to customers that denounced Trump and his supporters, saying, “The open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades.”
When Penzey experienced a bit of backlash over these remarks, he took to Facebook to clarify that although he doesn’t believe all Trump supporters are racist, their actions were still hateful. He posted, “You really are a good bunch, but you just committed the biggest act of racism in American history since Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway 53 years ago. Make this right. Take ownership for what you have done and begin the pathway forward.”
Later, he wrote an open letter to other CEOs urging them to speak out against the president-elect, too. Penzey said, “Willing to take a hit for what is right, we did what we did. In the two weeks since, online sales are up 59.9%, gift box sales up 135%. Yes, maybe for the moment we have lost 3% of our customers because of the so-called ‘right wing firestorm.’ And, yes, they send emails of rage, and ALL CAPS, and bad language with the hope of creating the perception that they are bigger than they really are. But what we learned is that, in terms of retail spending, Donald Trump simply has no one supporting his views for America. He has no constituency.”
Trump’s hateful rhetoric has pushed some of the biggest brands in the world to pipe up too, including Nike. Their new campaign posits that “equality has no boundaries.” In a statement released ahead of the campaign’s debut, the company noted that “Nike’s employees and athletes believe that sport has the unique power to unite people and inspire change—and they believe Nike’s role is to be in the game, to never sit on the sideline.”
Perhaps Under Armour should take note. The Nike competitor’s CEO, Kevin Plank, recently described Trump as an “asset for the country,” prompting athletes to publicly speak out against the brand. Misty Copeland, a dancer and brand ambassador for the company, posted a rebuttal on Instagram, saying, “I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank’s recent comments in support of Trump as recently reported…It is important to me that he, and UA, take public action to clearly communicate and reflect our common values in order for us to effectively continue to work towards our shared goal of trying to motivate ALL people to be their best selves.”
Copeland’s sentiments were echoed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Stephen Curry—both Under Armour brand ambassadors. And the outcry seemed to work: Plank backed off his stance less than a week later, while the company as a whole released a statement reading, “We are against a travel ban and believe that immigration is a source of strength, diversity and innovation for global companies based in America like Under Armour.”
The social networking company Meetup has also enumerated its role in resisting Trump’s bigoted agenda. They recently sent an email to their subscribers with the subject line, “Why #Resist?” Inside, they stated, “Meetup has always served as an organizing platform for a wide range of political views, welcoming everyone from the Howard Deaniacs to the Tea Party. Meetup will always welcome people with different beliefs. But after the recent executive order aimed to block people on the basis of nationality and religion, a line was crossed. At a time when core democratic ideals feel under attack, we feel a duty to spark more civic participation.”
The email goes on to highlight the 1,000+ localized #Resist Meetup groups the company has created “on behalf of democracy, equality, human rights, social justice, and sustainability.” By their count, over 50,000 people have already joined one of these groups to get involved.
Some brands are subtler—but steadfast.
In 2013, Cheerios introduced a commercial that featured an interracial family. While the spot earned nearly 75,000 “likes” on YouTube in just a few months, a barrage of racist remarks resulted in General Mills disabling comments entirely. Instead of backing down, however, the brand brought the family back in a new ad—during the Super Bowl, no less.
As Roger Groves pointed out at Forbes, “It was as if they were saying: ‘We know our first interracial commercial brought some negativity. But we’ll take the economic risk that those who object will be lost purchasers. And just so you know we mean it, we’ll pay $4 million for 30 seconds to reaffirm our commitment.’”
This type of action sends a clear message to consumers, and haters be damned; Cheerios was still ranked among the top ten most-loved consumer brands across all industries in 2014.
Wells Fargo recently took a similar approach to show their support for same-sex marriages. In their “Learning Sign Language” ad, a lesbian couple attempts to learn sign language as they prepare to adopt a child who can’t hear. The commercial drew immediate ire from popular Evangelist Franklin Graham, who promptly pulled the Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s accounts from the bank.
When asked about the issue, an LGBT-identified executive at Wells Fargo, Doug Case, noted to the San Francisco Business Times, “Our CEO, John Stumpf, very frequently will talk about LGBT inclusiveness and, talk about walking the talk, you can often hear him speak to the value that our LGBT team members provide.”
In light of these comments, it’s no shock that Wells Fargo stood firm and refused to pull the ad. Just two months after its release, the company was deemed the Earth’s most valuable bank by the Wall Street Journal. An interesting side note? Unfortunately for Graham, his new bank, BB&T Corp., is also a vocal supporter of LGBT rights.
Consumers expect you to pick a side.
After digital strategist Shannon Coulter started the hashtag #GrabYourWallet, people all over the country began boycotting stores that carry product lines helmed by Trump family members, including the president’s daughter Ivanka. Shoes.com was among the first to pull her products, but since January, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Marshall’s, and several other stores have all followed suit after experiencing declining sales.
Nordstrom in particular saw a 32% decrease in sales of Ivanka’s products during the last fiscal year, with the second, third and fourth weeks of October showing a more than 70% decrease. And Ivanka isn’t alone. Items from Poppa Don’s Trump Home collection have also been dropped from Sears and Kmart.
At its inception, the #GrabYourWallet movement identified nearly forty stores to boycott until those companies discontinued Trump-related products. That list has now been whittled down a bit; the companies that have raised funds for the Trump campaign or endorsed him in some way, however, also make the list–bringing the total number of boycotted brands to nearly sixty.
At first, companies seemed undeterred by the boycott. Nordstrom, for instance, released a statement through Twitter in November that read, “We hope that offering a vendor’s products isn’t misunderstood as us taking a political position; we’re not. We recognize our customers can make choices about what they purchase based on personal views & we’ll continue to give them options.”
In an internal email obtained by Fortune, co-president Pete Nordstrom told employees, “We’ve heard from customers, including some who are long time loyal customers, threatening a boycott of Nordstrom if we continue to carry the line. Similarly, we’ve heard from customers who say they will boycott Nordstrom if we stop carrying the brand. This is a sharply divisive subject. No matter what we do, we are going to end up disappointing some of our customers.”
Macy’s CEO, Terry Lundgren, stated at the time, “If Hillary Clinton had a line of women’s suits or handbags I wouldn’t carry those either. I just think we don’t want to be a politically associated company, we sell to everybody at Macy’s and have a broad and diverse customer base.”
When Lundgren made the decision to pull Donald Trump’s products, the president went to Twitter to call for a boycott. Lundgren himself admits that those tweets certainly didn’t help profits and now he’s feeling pressure from left-leaning consumers. Perhaps it’s time for Lundgren, like Nordstrom, to reconsider his stance. No matter what he does, he’s poised to lose a portion of his audience. The question he must ask himself is this: does Macy’s want to be a brand that caters to hate or love?
So far, none of the companies dropping the Trump family’s products have done so as a political statement. Instead, they admit that it’s only a reaction to declining sales, or refuse to give a reason at all. And although brands like Burlington Coat Factory, Belk and T.J. Maxx have made headlines for removing the products from their websites, they continue to sell them at their brick-and-mortar stores. Because of this fact, they remain on the #GrabYourWallet boycott list. Still, Coulter is not deterred. She recently told The Washington Post, “I feel a seriousness of purpose that I’ve never felt before in my life.”
These actions go beyond consumer engagement.
Current and potential employees are watching, too. Neilson reports that 67% of employees feel that corporate social responsibility is essential or strongly preferred when it comes to choosing the right employer. Plus, it’s crucial for all of a company’s employees to feel wanted and valued, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religion, race or age. And while protections exist to shield employees from discrimination (depending on the state), an organization that goes out of its way to send a message of inclusivity is one that will surely attract a diverse group of talented individuals, and foster a feeling of belonging amongst current employees.
This is clear when you take another look at the Nordstrom situation. While the company claimed that their staff has responded positively to the organization’s neutral stance, one employee told Fortune, “Working for a company that doesn’t take a stand on these issues, and chooses profit, is not something that makes me feel great about where I sell my talent. I’ll be updating my resume this week.”
Speaking out against hatred and bigotry isn’t a threat to your career.
IBM has already lost at least one employee due to their open support of Trump. In an open letter to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, senior content strategist Elizabeth Wood laid out the reasons she decided to resign from the organization, writing, “Last Tuesday, you shared with the world your open letter to president-elect Donald Trump, outlining ways for his administration’s success to conveniently dovetail with that of IBM products. Your letter offered the backing of IBM’s global workforce in support of his agenda that preys on marginalized people and threatens my well-being as a woman, a Latina and a concerned citizen. The company’s hurry to do this was a tacit endorsement of his position, and has signaled to me something very important about IBM’s values: a willingness to legitimize threats to our country for financial gain.”
She goes on to point out that high school students all over the country—our future workforce—have been walking out of class in protest, enraged that the country has just elected a man who has such hateful things to say about minorities, women and members of the LGBT community. Americans are fired up; they want to make a difference. If their employer isn’t going to help–or worse, is actively hindering their fight against injustice–the relationship won’t fair well.
What about individual creative professionals?
It might feel uncomfortable to mix politics and work, especially when you’re not sure where your next contract is coming from, but speaking out against hatred and bigotry isn’t a threat to your career. Instead, it should expand your opportunities to collaborate with like-minded people and help you weed out the types of employers and clients that you probably wouldn’t want to work with in the first place.
Like Bill Penzey says, “In this moment there is finally the real chance to unite our nation in our shared rejection of sexism, homophobia, and racism. Opportunities to do the right thing at the time when doing the right thing makes all the difference come once in a lifetime. Make your history proud.”
Be sympathetic. Be thoughtful. Be genuine. Tapping into these values will rarely steer you down the wrong path. Taking a stand against bigotry not only makes your brand more empathetic and engaging, it’s simply the right thing to do.
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