How Can Brands Protect Our Civil Liberties?
A Shared Table by enso and the ACLU, Private Sector + Democracy
Since America’s last national election, many of us have felt our democratic norms are at risk and in need of all-hands-on-deck protection. Companies are taking a political stand not just in closed-door lobbying meetings, but also through mass marketing and public calls to action. For brands, claiming a social or political point-of-view in an increasingly divided country can be complicated, especially if employees, shareholders and customers don’t share those values. But with the leverage businesses hold, it’s a risk brands are increasingly expected to take, if not a responsibility.
What active role can business play to strengthen our democratic institutions and support everyday people’s civil liberties? How can brands drive meaningful messages without undermining business success?
One week before the 2018 midterm elections, we co-hosted a dinner with our friends at the ACLU to discuss the private sector’s role in protecting democracy and civil liberties. Here are six lessons we discussed and learned sitting around the table.
I. With great power comes great responsibility.
Business and economic influence holds an undeniable power in the fight for democracy and civil liberties, whether advocating through policy or consumer outreach. In 2016, the introduction of controversial House Bill 2 drove companies to pull billions of dollars of funding and industry out of North Carolina; tech companies relocated, concerts were canceled, and companies banned employee travel to the state. Although this stand against discrimination is important, how do we ensure that brands “fighting in the name of democracy” don’t end up pushing their own agenda to the extent that they set-back rather than support democratic norms? Read Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All for a treatise on the subject.
While it’s important to be nimble, it’s also important to have advisors who can ensure the signals your company sends are addressing the roots of systemic issues. We recommend connecting with our friends at the ACLU to develop an approach to action that’s rooted in their deep expertise.
II. Commit and focus on a key issue.
We’re living in a world of constantly buzzing news alerts and a media cycle that never sleeps. For brands looking to support civil liberties, there’s an overwhelming amount of issues to respond to. By weighing in on everything, it’s easy for brand’s efforts to get diluted, and contribute to a static conversation rather than create meaningful progress. How to combat this? Build a strategy around the issues your brand can authentically get behind.
The dating platform OKCupid has made a public commitment to fight hate and support love. Makes sense, right? Their mission is incorporated into everything from product integrations to partnerships, and brought to life through features like preferred pronoun selection on the app. Through a partnership with the ACLU, users can badge themselves with the hashtag #RightToLove, and find dates who also support the nonprofit’s fight for civil liberties. (Side note: 90% of users do.) The morning after the tragedy in Charlottesville, OkCupid realized one of the white supremacist’s central to the violence was on their platform. Within ten minutes they had “blocked him for life” — a Tweet that went viral and cemented OkCupid as a leading figure in the brands “cracking down on hate” (NYT).
III. There’s big power in the hyperlocal.
We dedicate a lot of attention to what’s happening at the national level (and reasonably so), but oftentimes the place where brands can have the biggest impact is on a state by state basis. In many ways, local politics and ballot measures are the trenches where the fight for civil liberties is being waged. It’s where state-specific elections can have big consequences (e.g. O’Rourke v. Cruz), and where local debates inform other state’s legislation (e.g. abortion rights in Missouri).
Brands have both an opportunity and a responsibility to go deeper than broad slogans of support; liberties are being threatened in the cities and states where their employees and customers live. For example, Massachusetts’ Prop 3 — a bill that would repeal discriminatory laws against transgender people — is being actively supported by Google, the Patriots, and the Red Socks, making their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and safety for all people not just lip service, but a real commitment on election day.
IV. One brand can inspire an industry
It’s easier for brands to take action with partners instead of alone, as it provides some cultural cover. This year, a coalition of brands (including Gap, Lyft, Sonos, Walmart, etc.) launched an effort called Make Time to Vote, a commitment to fight the historically low voting rates by giving employees time off to vote.
While collective action can move mountains, other brands are taking radical stances and sparking new conversations. Patagonia is famously suing President Trump for his attempt to shrink the size of several national monuments, proactively changing their website with the words “The President Stole Your Land.” Portland-based streetwear apparel company Wildfang launched a crowdfunding campaign to single handedly save the last abortion clinic in South Dakota — and succeeded. These emerging voices in brand-led advocacy are blazing the trail for other businesses to do the same.
V. It’s up to someone to lead the internal charge.
There isn’t a formula for how brands can take an active role in protecting civil liberties. We’ve seen that momentum can be generated by consumers, internal stakeholders, inspired leaders, or trusted partners. One thing we’ve heard in common from brands leading the charge: there’s often an internal champion (or champions) who will carry a campaign, donation, or decision over the finish line. Whether responding to an event in real time or driving a long-term strategy, the brands who release impactful work have someone who’s committed to pushing through a lack of precedent, process, and their own internal politics to get sh*t done.
Thank you to all who attended.
Sondra Goldschein, ACLU, Head of National Strategic Initiatives
Eunice Rho, ACLU, Associate Director of Strategic Partnerships
Danielle Silber, ACLU, Director of Strategic Partnerships
Melissa Hobley, OKCupid, CMO
Justin Gignac, WorkingNotWorking, Founder
Matthew Stepka, Machina Ventures, Managing Partner
Maura Everett, Sports Marketing & Consumer Engagement, Puma
Alice Pang, enso, Sr. Manager Partnerships + Community
Carla Fernandez, enso, Community Lead
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