We are indeed living in interesting times. While the United States has a history of being divided politically, there is something about this era that many observers and experts have deemed as being unlike anything since the Civil War. Our politics have taken on a tone that many have tried to label with just the right adjective…intense, nasty, polarized, unrecognizable, disgusting, etc. But in truth, no one descriptor can adequately capture the political intensity — and anxiety — many are experiencing today. Just being an American in October 2020 however, one can feel, one can sense, and yes, one knows that something is very different about this election year and the importance of the upcoming Presidential election.
Being a strategic management consultant and professor, we talk a great deal about corporate social responsibility and actions that companies can and should take to be better corporate citizens. We speak about the obligations companies have to both society in general and to the “greater good” in response to the privileges they enjoy and the opportunities afforded to them in our economy and society. And now, in this moment, many companies, both large and small alike, have responded to the challenging political environment by trying to actively engage in promoting the ultimate civic responsibility — voting. The leaders of these companies, from very large Fortune 500 firms to individual small business owners, are today taking a stand, not encouraging their employees and their customers to vote for one party or one candidate, but to simply vote.
Now, many would think this is a “no lose” situation for companies. After all, who could object to voting? Who could see an encouragement for people to engage in their civic responsibility as an imputed call to vote for a certain candidate or a certain party? Well, welcome to 2020 America — a house certainly divided. I have previously written about how the political divide can and should be taken into account in marketing efforts today (see: “Marketing to Both the Red and the Blue Teams”). And now, recent research has shown how companies’ efforts to encourage simply voting are drawing far different reactions from consumers, based on their political affiliations. So as more and more businesses of all sizes are increasingly looking at doing things to encourage both their employees and their customers to vote, this article looks at the important bottom-line considerations for management as to how such actions will be perceived by a very politically polarized audience today.
Consumer Reactions to Companies’ Voting Initiatives
Recently, the analyst firm Morning Consult published a study examining consumer attitudes towards companies undertaking initiatives to encourage their employees and/or their customers to vote in 2020. Their research effort was entitled “For Brands, Getting Out the Vote Can Also Mean Getting Into Consumers’ Good Graces,” and by and large, this is true. However, as with most things, the devil is in the details, as the Morning Consult research showed some interesting subcurrents in consumers’ reactions to businesses’ efforts to promote voting, based on the political leanings of consumers.
In late September, the Morning Consult research asked a nationwide panel of over 2000 Americans two questions in regards to how they would react to a company’s level of involvement in promoting voting in 2020. The first dealt with how consumers would feel about a company if it gave employees election day off. Secondly, the researchers asked survey participants how they would feel about a company if they learned that the business was involved in voter registration efforts. The results of the survey were, like America today, more divided than one might presume.
As you can see in Figure 1 (Whether Voter Engagement Efforts Will Lead American Consumers to View Companies More or Less Favorably) below, the first level of responses that Morning Consult surveyed was how such actions would make consumers feel in general about the company if it engaged in such efforts to encourage voting — asking the survey participants whether these actions would incline them to have either a more or less favorable view of the company. As one would expect, such actions were overall perceived positively by their consumer panel — positively, but by no means overwhelmingly — or uniformly (more on that in a minute). Overall, 58% of respondents said they would have a more favorable view of a company if it gave their employees election day off, while 46% would have a more favorable view of a company if it was indeed involved with voter registration efforts.
Figure 1: Whether Voter Engagement Efforts Will Lead American Consumers to View Companies More or Less Favorably
In the same manner, the Morning Consult researchers looked at how these same two efforts to promote civic engagement would register with consumers in a more tangible way — whether knowing that the company took one or both of the actions to encourage voting would impact the likelihood of them buying from the company. As one can see in Figure 2 (Whether a Company’s Voter Engagement Efforts Will Lead American Consumers to Be More or Less Likely to Purchase from Them) below, the linkage between a company’s proactive action to support voting and a consumer’s purchase intention is not nearly as strong as was simply the more favorable/less favorable view of the company through such efforts. While not surprising, one can see that only 38% of Americans said that knowing that a company was giving employees Election Day off would make them more likely to buy from them, and likewise, only 28% of those surveyed said that knowing that a company was involved in voter registration efforts would increase their purchase likelihood.
Figure 2: Whether a Company’s Voter Engagement Efforts Will Lead American Consumers to Be More or Less Likely to Purchase from Them
While the survey results showed that the positive “bump” a company might expect to see from encouraging voting might be far less than many might have expected overall, the really interesting findings from the Morning Consult research were in the crosstabs — the political affiliations of those polled. Now it goes without saying that there were vast differences found between consumers’ attitudes toward companies choosing to engage in promoting voting this election season. Clearly, Democrats viewed such efforts far more favorably across the board than both their Republican and Independent counterparts. And on the flip side, Republicans not only viewed both giving employees Election Day off and promoting voter registration far less favorably than both Democrats and Independents.
Looking back to Figure 1, one can see that Democrats were far more likely to have a positive view of the company than the general population when it comes to their favorability reaction to firms both giving employees Election Day off (75% of Democrats vs. 58% of all Americans) and being involved with voter registration efforts (64% of Democrats vs. 46% of all Americans). Likewise, Democrat consumers were far more likely to not just perceive a company more favorably, but to actively seek to buy from that company based on the positive feelings engendered by knowing that the firm was engaged in promoting civic engagement. This was demonstrated by the fact that Democrats (as can be seen in Figure 2) were more likely than Americans overall to both buy from a company that gave their employees Election Day off (53% of Democrats versus 38% of all Americans) and to make a purchase from a firm that was involved in voter registration efforts (45% of Democrats versus 29% of all Americans).
To me, as a management consultant and professor, perhaps the most noteworthy finding coming out of the Morning Consult research is not the differences between Democratic and Republican-leaning consumers. Rather, their findings point to a disturbing aspect of both Republican and, to a lesser degree, Independent-leaning consumers’ views on such civic engagement efforts. This is the fact that the polling data shows that across the board, there is a significant subset of both groups that seem to be highly upset — perhaps even antagonistic — toward company efforts to promote voting this election season. In examining the findings in both Figures 1 and 2, a little less than 10% of Republican and Independent respondents report having a less favorable view of a company and being less likely to make a purchase from them in response to learning that the firm was giving its employees Election Day off. Likewise, when it comes to companies that were involved in voter registration efforts, a surprising 15% of both Republicans and Independent-leaning consumers reported that they would hold a less favorable view of a firm engaged in such a practice this election season. And when it comes to purchase intent, 13% of Republicans and even 11% of Independent-leaning consumers reported that they would be less likely to buy from a company involved in voter registration efforts.
So, from a bottom-line perspective, companies could — from a practical standpoint — actually risk diminishing their goodwill and brand equity with some significant portions of their consumer base from actions such as the two (giving employees Election Day off and being involved with voter registration efforts). With Republican and even Independent voters being less responsive to such outreach efforts — and even 1 in 10 or so being outright hostile to companies venturing into not promoting candidates or parties, but simply encouraging voting, this significantly raises the stakes for companies who have already or are considering engaging in such civic engagement outreach as part of their social responsibility efforts.
On the flip side however, Democratic-leaning consumers may well reward companies for undertaking such actions to support voting itself. While they may in fact be making an erroneous assumption, Democratic consumers may be interpreting corporate or even small business actions in this regard as supporting their candidates in the 2020 election, even if a company’s true intent is simply to promote civic engagement, not voting for any party or Presidential (and/or even Congressional) candidate. Thus, companies may indeed see a bigger bounce — and perhaps yes, if the current political polls are indeed correct in predicting a Biden win in the Presidential election and good Democratic performance in races for the House and Senate — even more of an upside — whether intended or unintended — for supporting voting in general if the actual “vote” goes more the way of the Democratic Party in less than a month.
For both corporate executives and small business owners alike, they must view the findings of the Morning Consult research with some variation of “What Gives?” Throughout business history, companies have come to rely on certain “things” and certain “values” as being “no brainers” when it comes to marketing. You want your company, your brand, your products, and your people to be associated with things and values with nearly universal positive sentiment — think puppies and kittens (and how many ads use them, even for products and services that have nothing whatsoever to do with dogs or cats!). GM’s Chevrolet division famously ran a campaign in the early 1970’s tying Chevy to be just as American as “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and…Chevrolet!”
And companies throughout the years have used overtly patriotic appeals in their advertising, tying their products and their brands to the flag and to America and “American values” for everything from beer…
… and whiskey
…. and of course, Coca-Cola!
So, supporting and encouraging voting — the ultimate civic responsibility and patriotic act — would seem to be one of those “no brainer” decisions that managers would believe that whatever their personal political stripes and positions would produce nothing but positives for their business. But, oh, it is 2020, and as the Morning Consult research showed, there will be both positive and negative consumer reactions to businesses that are taking a stand to support voting. And yes, because encouraging “voting” — in general — is being interpreted by some as either working for or against the party and candidate they personally back, all businesses today — both large and small alike — face the very real prospect of both gaining customers for their efforts to encourage voting and yes, losing some customers in the process as well.
What is tremendously encouraging today is the fact that today from a corporate social responsibility standpoint is that it is not just individual companies taking action to promote voting. Rather, we are seeing far, far more interest across the board from business interests to promote voting in this election and taking steps to not just encourage their direct sphere of influence — their employees and their customers — to vote, but reaching out beyond that to promote voting in general. We see cross-industry efforts to involve companies of all sizes to undertake efforts in partnership with organizations such as ElectionDay.org and Brands for Democracy to help facilitate their employees to vote with hundreds of companies signing-on to work with these nonpartisan groups. We see companies large and small alike looking to make operational changes and/or even close on Election Day to help enable employees (and yes, customers) to vote. Already, Best Buy has announced it will be limiting store hours on November 3rd. And to help address the shortage of poll workers due to COVID-19, approximately a hundred major companies to date have subscribed to the Power the Polls initiative to provide paid time off for their employees to work the polls on Election Day. As of mid-September, the organization had surpassed its goal of providing 350,000 poll workers to help supplant the aging group who typically staff voting sites — who because of their age are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. This was more than 100,000 over Power the Polls’ stated target! And so as Axios recently observed, such efforts show that “major employers are stepping up to fill a void from the government in helping to ensure that the elections will be safe and fair.”
And so in the end, both executives of large firms and owners of small businesses face a real question today: What can — and what should — they do to promote voting as Election Day approaches? As the Morning Consult research shows, this is not a question that is occurring in a vacuum, as actions company leaders might take to promote their employees and customers civic engagement — s their motivation might be — will not be universally applauded by consumers and may well even cause some degree of backlash. So, in an effort to pursue what they should perceive as a way of furthering their business’ social responsibility, they could well risk alienating a sizable portion of their customer base. On the other hand, they could well be rewarded with greater loyalty and brand equity from another part of their customer base for doing what they perceive as being the right thing socially.
However, I do believe that ultimately, management of companies across all types of industries and especially those in those consumer-facing businesses where such efforts become not just the province of HR and internal communication, but are known and felt by customers, will participate in encouraging voting like never before over the next few weeks (as early voting has already begun in a majority of states), culminating with Election Day on November 3rd. I believe this not just as a management consultant and professor, but as a student of history as well. Christopher Mann, an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College, was quoted in the Morning Consult report as saying: “We’re not talking about these corporate efforts reshaping the American electorate. On the other hand, we have elections every year where adding a few hundred votes or a few thousand votes can make a real difference.” However, I do feel that from corporate boardrooms to the offices of small business owners today, there is a strong sentiment that this is the right thing to do in the current environment, with the belief that to encourage voting — for whoever and whatever — is to be on the proverbial “right side of history.” And yes, in the end, that is not just being socially and civically responsible — it’s smart business as well!
About David Wyld
David Wyld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.
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