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Colin Kaepernick, Nike spokesperson.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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Companies used to stay quiet about politics. In 2018, social causes became integral to their branding.

Gun control, immigration, and the environment were some of the causes corporations championed this year.

Companies used to remain mum on any topic deemed impolite for the dinner table — religion, sex, politics. But in the Trump era, even traditionally apolitical brands like Walmart have taken quiet action, withdrawing their financial support from public figures with views that clearly cross a line. And many companies are being even more explicit about their views, weighing in on subjects like women’s rights, gun control, and immigration.

In today’s political climate in which rallies, boycotts, and public outrage are constantly in the news, it may be worth the risk for companies to speak out about their politics, according to marketing experts.

“It used to be you didn’t want to upset anyone,” said Jessica Li, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Kansas. “But studies show that the country is very divided, and if it’s divided politically, brands might feel like they’re able to take a stronger stand and get more support from their target market. It’s a way for them to get people talking about their brand.”

Accordingly, a series of companies this year either took stands of some sort or continued their political activism from years past. While certain brands, such as Patagonia, have made social issues a part of their image well before Donald Trump entered the White House, others are wading into the political sphere for the first time and finding that the results aren’t always predictable — or profitable.

Patagonia got political this year, but that’s nothing new

At a time when social justice has become trendy and being politically outspoken is viewed as a sign of integrity, it can be hard to distinguish the companies that want to cash in on a movement from the ones that are truly invested in the work. But Patagonia’s long history of efforts to better the environment separates the retailer from others that have only embraced sociopolitical causes since the 2016 election.

Months before Trump edged out Hillary Clinton to win the presidential race, Patagonia co-founder Yvon Chouinard was featured in a New Yorker profile about how the company had funneled its eco-conscious sensibilities and anti-corporate ethos into a successful clothing business. The story pointed out how even in the early 1990s, Patagonia was training employees about its commitment to environmental ethics. So in November, when Patagonia announced jaw-dropping plans for the corporate tax cut it received courtesy of the Trump administration, the announcement did not come across as a publicity stunt.

Patagonia cofounder Yvon Chouinard
Patagonia cofounder Yvon Chouinard in 1993.
Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison Agency

“Based on last year’s irresponsible tax cut, Patagonia will owe less in taxes this year — $10 million less, in fact,” CEO Rose Marcario said via LinkedIn. “Instead of putting the money back into our business, we’re responding by putting $10 million back into the planet. Our home planet needs it more than we do.”

Marcario argued that since taxes protect the vulnerable and public lands, Trump had given corporations a break “at the expense of our planet.” So Patagonia, which already sets aside a portion of sales to environmental causes through its “1% for the Planet” campaign, will donate its $10 million tax cut to environmental groups rather than reinvest it in the company.

“They have a long history of supporting environmental activism,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, of the company. “It makes perfect sense for Patagonia to be very visible in standing up for wilderness areas and for the environment. That’s what makes Patagonia such a magnetic brand.”

For Patagonia, combining its efforts to help the environment with criticism of the president — Chouinard has called Trump “the perfect person to take us to the apocalypse” — has paid off. When Patagonia announced after the 2016 election that it would donate Black Friday profits to environmental groups, sales reached $10 million, and the company won 25,000 new shoppers.

While Patagonia may be a leading retailer in environmental activism, it is not in the fight alone. Last year, the CEOs of more than 350 outdoor businesses signed a joint letter urging US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to protect national monuments and public lands. And a few months later, when President Trump announced plans to cut the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — REI issued a statement about the decision and posted it on its website to urge the public to declare support for public lands on social media.

“REI will not retreat from our strong belief that there is common ground in the outdoors,” the statement said. “We will continue to pursue bipartisan support to protect public lands and prevent death by a thousand cuts. REI members can be assured that we will honor our shared passion for our public lands, dedicating time and resources to leaving them healthier for future generations.”

REI pointed out how the outdoor recreation economy has an estimated value of $887 billion and employs more than 7.6 million workers. In essence, scaling back on public lands hurts not just the earth but also workers and the economy.

Nike takes a calculated risk with Colin Kaepernick

When Nike in September unveiled its ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as well as LeBron James and Serena Williams, the news trended on social media and made headlines across the world. Kaepernick, after all, has been roundly criticized by conservatives since 2016, when he started kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to highlight anti-black police violence. President Trump indirectly described him as a “son of a bitch,” and the right has largely mischaracterized his protest as targeting veterans and the American flag rather than police misconduct.

The athlete’s football career has also come to a standstill after his peaceful political protest. No NFL team has been willing to sign him, and he’s sued the team’s owners for colluding to keep him out of the league.

Given that Kaepernick has become a political lightning rod for conservatives and a persona non grata in the NFL, the idea that a major sports brand would feature him in an ad seemed implausible, but Nike took what marketing experts call a “calculated risk” and included him in its campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan.

“Nike knows their audience,” said Jerry Davis, a University of Michigan professor of management and sociology. “They very carefully made this decision. Companies now have much better real-time intelligence about their customers. They know whether the kind of people who buy Nike are more likely to be pro- or anti-Kaepernick and what’s the likely reaction to this marketing. It was a calculated move but a smart one. Politics infuses everything now, and companies can’t escape that.”

The reaction to the Nike ad was swift. While Kaepernick’s fans expressed their delight, his detractors took to social media to upload images of themselves burning their Nike shoes, and some state, city, and college officials took steps to ban the brand. News outlets reported that Nike’s shares tumbled the day after the ad’s September 3 debut, but they neglected to mention that shares for its competitors, like Adidas and Puma, fell as well.

Rather than hurt Nike, Kaepernick may have actually helped the company; its stock surged by 5 percent in the three weeks after the campaign’s premiere. The quarterback may be a polarizing figure, but his loyal fan base is also why his San Francisco 49ers jersey continues to be a top seller two years since he last played a pro football game. Featuring him in its “Just Do It” campaign likely endeared Nike to the millennial fans who value companies that embrace social causes.

That said, it’s worth noting that Nike never endorsed Kaepernick’s political views. The commercial simply honors those willing to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

“When you watch the ad, you see Nike is supporting the idea of authenticity and being truthful to yourself, and that’s Colin Kaepernick,” Calkins said. “It reinforced Nike’s reputation for standing up for athletes, for saluting the individual.”

The public can sense when a company isn’t being authentic

Nike did not face a backlash for never explicitly backing Kaepernick’s views in its ad. Last year, however, Pepsi sparked a controversy when it released a nothingburger of an ad featuring model Kendall Jenner handing a soft drink to a police officer during a fictional political protest. Not only was the ad’s message unclear but critics also took issue with the fact that it centered a privileged white model not known for championing social causes. The verdict? Pepsi was full of it.

“Pepsi wanted to talk about social issues, but they also wanted to have mass appeal,” Li said. “People wondered if the commercial was really authentic. Did they really care, or were they capitalizing on where our society is right now to make more money? They used Kendall Jenner in the commercial, but she is not like a Kaepernick; she’s a model. To put her in a commercial where she’s fixing these issues she hasn’t spoken about or experienced didn’t feel right.”

The soft drink maker ultimately pulled the ad and offered an apology for appearing to capitalize on the social justice movements that have characterized the Trump era.

In April, Starbucks had to do more than apologize when an employee at a Philadelphia store called the police on two black patrons for trespassing. The call was made just minutes after the men, who were waiting for a business associate to arrive, entered the Starbucks. To the public, the incident was a clear case of racial profiling, and the fact that it happened at Starbucks, a corporation that had previously urged customers to discuss race relations with its baristas, compounded the incident.

Facing boycotts and public outrage, Starbucks decided to close its US stores for an afternoon of racial bias training. It was an unprecedented move that signaled to customers that it was making a good-faith effort to restore the public’s trust. And it likely inspired the Nordstrom Rack president to make a trip to personally apologize to three black youth falsely accused of shoplifting at a Missouri store. Today, both ads and apologies have to seem authentic.

When taking a political stand hurts a company

Taking a political stand may be the morally right thing for a company to do, but that doesn’t mean it won’t face consequences. After the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school on Valentine’s Day, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell assault-style weapons and that it would stop selling guns to anyone younger than 21. The retailer went on to reportedly hire gun control lobbyists in April.

News of that development led major gun companies to stop doing business with Dick’s. O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc., MKS Supply, and Springfield Armory all announced they would sever their relationship with the retailer, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation announced plans to revoke Dick’s membership. The National Rifle Association also painted Dick’s as an enemy to the Second Amendment in an April tweet.

It’s unclear how the controversy over its gun control stance will shake out for the business. Although the retailer may have alienated the gun industry, just 10 percent of Dick’s revenues come from gun sales. In the third quarter of this year, earnings were higher than expected, but shares were down overall.

Dick’s may have won praise for daring to get political when corporations were once notoriously silent about hot-button issues, but it has a markedly different audience from Nike. Marketing experts like Li characterized the typical Nike fan as younger and more politically liberal than the average Dick’s customer, which is why the sports goods retailer has seen some of its business relationships severed as it backs gun control.

It’s not the only company that has faced a backlash for advocating for a political cause. When Delta ended its discount program for NRA members in February, it lost out on a $40 million tax break from the state of Georgia, where the airline is based. Georgia’s lieutenant governor also lashed out at the company in a tweet.

Immigration has proven to be nearly as divisive issue for companies as gun control has been. Corporations that have advocated for immigrants continue to be entangled in heated debates, or even legal action, as a result.

Chobani and Microsoft advocate for refugees and immigrants

Given that Trump campaigned on the promise of a border wall, it’s no surprise that the United States’ treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers has emerged as one of the most pressing issues of his presidency. The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the US, created travel bans, and separated migrant children from their families. These policies are diametrically opposed to the values that Chobani Yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant from Turkey, has tried to impart to the public.

Since 2010, Ulukaya has made a point of hiring immigrants and refugees to work at Chobani, leading him to become the target of misinformation campaigns. The right has falsely accused him of trying to beef up the nation’s Muslim population, and conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said the executive supported “migrant rapists,” according to CNN. As immigrants face multilayered attacks in a nation overrun with xenophobia, Ulukaya has found himself speaking out on behalf of immigrants, especially to counter some of Trump’s remarks.

“I have nothing against America first, but ‘humanity first too,’” Ulukaya told CNN during a September event for his nonprofit called Tent Partnership for Refugees. Founded in 2016, Tent focuses on finding private sector solutions for the refugee crisis.

The fact that Ulukaya launched a nonprofit to help refugees and made a point to hire immigrants and refugees at Chobani years before Trump took office makes it clear that his advocacy for this group is hardly a marketing ploy. In September, he won the Atlantic Council’s Global Citizen Award. That month alone, he got 20 companies to commit to hiring refugees or to support their efforts to start new lives. Uniqlo, Hilton, Barilla, and Microsoft are among the brands who made the most recent pledge.

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya
Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has been an advocate for refugees and immigrants.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Microsoft has also advocated for immigrants by taking part in a lawsuit, along with Princeton University and one of its students, against the federal government’s decision to sunset the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In August, the US District Court in Washington, DC, reasserted its April finding that the decision to end DACA, which benefits unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children, was unlawful. Microsoft took part in the lawsuit because the company employs many immigrant workers.

“A lasting solution for DREAMers has become an economic imperative and a humanitarian necessity,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, about the court ruling. “... DREAMers grew up in this country, attended our schools, pay taxes and contribute to our communities. They deserve bipartisan action by Congress.”

Since the dawn of the industrial age, corporations have battled the idea that they’re evil. While that perception hasn’t vanished, companies increasingly grapple with the notion that to do good, they must act. Today, greed and exploitation continue to mark businesses as morally bankrupt, but so does failure to speak out during an age when many refuse to tolerate silence, politeness, and thoughts and prayers any longer. Social action has always been a matter of life and death, but when migrant children are being placed behind bars, mass shootings have grown routine, and the climate is changing, taking a stand now signals that a company has values.

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