CEOs must 'fulfill leadership gaps' to ensure democracy works for everyone, says Patagonia
During the 2018 midterm elections, Patagonia inadvertently waded into politics when the company’s CEO gave workers Election Day off to vote. The move, reminiscent of REI’s #OptOutside campaign, garnered praise from both customers and employees, said Corley Kenna, senior director, global communications and public relations at Patagonia, speaking at “How Brands Can Message and Mobilize for the 2020 Elections,” an Advertising Week New York panel on Tuesday morning.
What started as a simple blog post grew into an initiative, Time to Vote, that now involves more than 400 other companies. Get-out-the-vote efforts are a relatively safe way for brands to wade into public affairs without potentially alienating customers, while still making a meaningful difference. “It is important to stay above politics. It’s not bipartisan, it’s nonpartisan,” Kenna said.
That’s because no matter their political affiliations, “everybody believes in this civic participation opportunity,” said Derrick Feldmann, managing director of Ad Council Edge, a new consultancy created by the organization. “Now, just because we believe it doesn’t mean we exercise it.”
The peculiarities of American voting also make it a useful issue for companies to rally around. Unlike many countries, Election Day isn’t a national holiday, and voter turnout is relatively low. “We’re living in an era where we need CEOs to fulfill leadership gaps in our society, and a big part of that is ensuring our democracy works for everyone,” Kenna said.
Fortunately for brands, there’s no singular path to filing those gaps. Walmart and Lyft have both joined Time to Vote, but it would be counterproductive for Lyft, Kenna noted, to shut down on Election Day because many people use the rideshare service to get to the polls.
As for messaging to potential voters, issue-focused spots had the largest appeal across generations, Feldmann said. Younger voters in particular have higher expectations for government accountability and action.
“They’re used to being listened to, because they’ve spent their entire lives interacting with platforms that are listening very carefully to the signals that they’re sending out,” said Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief at HuffPost. “If we change the way we like to wear our hair or the types of outfits we wear, Zara and Forever 21 turn on a dime and change everything. Why is this huge institution—government—completely unresponsive to our needs?”