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Brands Win in Corporate Bid to Support 2020 Election Turnout

Published on November 3, 2020

The 2020 presidential election was a decisive contest on voting and civic engagement. Early voters turned out in record numbers, and purpose-led brands aligned themselves with a patriotic cause.

Voting is universally accepted across social, cultural and political lines. Despite COVID-related impediments, the 2020 vote defied a long history of middling turnout.  For brands, this was a cultural moment and a lesson for the future of civic engagement: Every company has the opportunity to play a nonpartisan role.

Our original research in The Purpose Report 2020 finds that 87% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans deeply value access to free and fair elections, and 86% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans value voting. Consumers in this poll found elections and voting meaningful across generations—baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z—and among white, Black, Latinx and Asians alike.  Some values are polarizing, but these are not.

Election Presents a Rare, Unifying Issue

People understand that civic engagement is our right and duty as responsible citizens — not a political statement. Nationwide, 62% of people responding to our survey say they care about the topic of civic engagement. Across a range of issues, from climate change to criminal justice, voting was the only issue in which a majority of respondents were “extremely inspired” to take action.

Voting and civic engagement touch all consumers. Few other issues have both universal support and unprecedented importance among consumers. The election runup revealed hidden commitment within pockets of the electorate. For example, an Easterseals survey the week before Election Day found 91% of registered voters with disabilities plan to or have already voted, despite challenges with access.

With COVID-19 and #BLM as a backdrop, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok prepared for scenarios that threaten civic values. These initiatives suggest that a company’s role in a civic issue must be intrinsically aligned with its ethos. To make a real impact, every company should look internally and ask themselves, “What is my role in the marketplace, and why does it matter right now?”

Brands Stand With the Ballot

Civic organizations recruited companies to support employees at the polls. A vote.org initiative secured 800 corporate pledges of paid time off. The Gap Inc. brand Old Navy paid employees to be poll workers; Uber offered its driver hubs as polling places. Brands who supported registration and turnout initiatives stood to gain credibility in values that their customer bases care about deeply.

A brand-sponsored initiative attracted 1,700 member companies before the 2020 election.  Levi’s and Patagonia were early backers of Time to Vote, with just 100 others in the 2018 midterm elections. Levi’s set a perfect example of how to capture the intersection of their values with their consumers’ values. With a supporting public service announcement, Levi’s rallied powerful influencers to promote the act of voting. Levi’s voting-themed apparel influenced a range of apparel and other brands, including Gap’s COVID-19 face mask collection.

Research in The Purpose Report 2020 shows that 84% of the national population feels that it is acceptable for a brand to profit when they support a cared-about issue or do the right thing. However, the study also confirms that 73% of people believe that profit is the only motive of companies when they support a cause. Consumers look for evidence of what a company actually does to support a cause–61% of respondents say they would consider direct monetary donations, while 53% of respondents said by direct help to people was evidence of sincere purpose.

Purpose and Profit Make Snug Fit for Levi’s

Levis’ is an example of how actions speak louder than words.  Its voter website carries links to check voter registration, state requirements, a voting FAQ and more. The brand committed to donating $2.6 million to nonprofits that engage eligible voters, encourage civic engagement and minimize obstacles around the process. After laying the groundwork, Levis’ decision to pair this initiative with a clothing line was simply a choice to capture an available marketing opportunity and let customers show their commitment. When a brand understands both its own values and its consumers’ values and is willing to take measurable action to uphold both, it will inevitably result in a huge marketing win.

Some apparel brands made deeper connections with merchandise. H&M’s election collection incorporated artist designs , contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union and a registration campaign that netted 4,000 contacts.  Although the stakes have been raised, brands should not pass up the opportunity to take a stand on this issue — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because they can also use it as a marketing moment when they have the public’s attention.

How Brands Win Their Customers’ Endorsement

But here is the catch: if your brand chooses to address this topic, they should make sure they authentically believe in it and live it throughout their organization. Even though civic engagement is a universally accepted public value, consumers still value authenticity above all else.  Ipsos polling suggests that younger voters especially expect brands to take stands on coronavirus, climate and racial justice issues.

At the end of the day, consumers do not care if a brand is in it to make money — they inherently understand that this goal is essential for brand survival. They just want brands to be true to their values. Brands can and should use civic engagement to promote themselves in the marketplace, but only when it is reflective of the brand as a whole.

Marketers should encourage civic engagement among their employees and consumers. Give everyone the information they need to understand their rights. Teach them how to find their polling place. Provide them with multiple options to cast a ballot. Give employees extra flexibility they need to vote during these uncertain times. And find a way to benefit your business monetarily. Brands’ efforts will inevitably have an impact — but they will only receive respect if the public is convinced they care.

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