It wasn’t long ago that the quality of a company’s product, its service and its value to the customer were the building blocks of success. Today, consumers demand far more. They increasingly want to know what a company stands for and, often more important, what it stands against.
Many companies—including major brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s—are answering that call. While much has been written about social responsibility in the business world, corporate civic engagement is becoming a currency with consumers, increasing brand awareness, customer loyalty and perhaps even sales.
Pioneering companies are championing initiatives that range from simple voter registration and recycling efforts to bold-faced advocacy on issues that matter to their audience.
Beyond Products and Profits
Corporate civic engagement has been a trend in the making for some time, fueled by the idea that consumers increasingly want to do business with companies that support their ideals. As the author Simon Sinek famously said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Sinek made the point in a TED Talk a decade ago. He was talking about how leaders in politics and industry act and communicate, but it easily applies to corporate social responsibility—and to corporate civic engagement.
That video has since become the third-most-popular TED Talk ever, viewed more than 44 million times. But we don’t need metrics to see examples of companies telling their story and getting active to stay in step with their consumer base. We can see it in the marketplace.
Prior to last year’s midterm election, roughly 150 companies joined in a nonpartisan effort to increase voter turnout called Time to Vote. Major brands like Lyft, Levi Strauss & Co., The Gap and Southwest Airlines all took part, each participating in different ways. For example, Levi Strauss gave employees time off to vote on Election Day. Lyft offered discounted rides to the polls.
The New York Times called it, “the strongest push yet to get employees to the polls.” We’ll no doubt see something similar next year, as Americans vote to elect a president and decide which party controls the House and Senate.
While many companies have gone quite a bit further than voter registration, few have been as pioneering as Patagonia. For years, the company has openly engaged in environmental activism. “While companies are expected to weigh in on everything from gun control to transgender rights these days—and many do so uncomfortably—Patagonia has been unapologetically political since the 1970s,” The New York Times reported.
So when the Trump administration announced that it would reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the company filed suit to block the effort. It also launched a campaign with a bold message, which it ran from the company home page: “The President Stole Your Land.”
Evaluate and Improve
While Patagonia’s style may not be for everyone, some type of civic engagement almost certainly is. Every company needs to evaluate and improve the story it communicates to supporters, be they employees, customers, investors or all of the above.
Researchers Ashley Spillane and Sofia Gross studied this accelerating civic engagement trend in the recently released Harvard Ash Center Research Study, where they observed that companies were successful when they advocated for strengthening our democracy, not focusing on a candidate or party.
Here at Phone2Action, we talk to companies that are increasing civic engagement every day, as well as companies that are curious to learn more. My message is often the same. Proceed carefully. Proceed realistically. But do proceed. Brands that fail to tell their story invite others to do it for them.
For many companies, making it easier for employees to register and vote is a great way to start. Others have created proud traditions that help employees get educated, whether through a website portal, candidate visits or regular email updates.
Whatever your style, now is the time to create your program. To be effective in next year’s election, a program should be built, tested and in place by December, in time for next year’s primary season. The election will dominate the national conversation in 2020. Your company can and should be a part of it.
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