In today's polarized political landscape, many brands feel compelled to take a political stance--despite increasingly high stakes. Patagonia's new CEO, Ryan Gellert, shares best practices for navigating tricky terrain. --As told to Brit Morse
The Wrong Way
Don't ask customers what they think. Do what you feel is right, says Gellert, who advises against surveying customers to gauge the effect of political messaging on issues important to the brand: "We pride ourselves on being committed to the truth as we see it rather than the top line of the business," he adds.
Gellert also notes that taking a political stance shouldn't necessarily be about backing a party or a decision, but about choosing candidates who promote policies on issues that you care about. For Patagonia, that's climate change: "The climate crisis is an existential threat of our own creation," says Gellert, "so it requires airtime and conversation and should be one of the things that Patagonia focuses on the most."
That doesn't mean your company won't deal with blowback. When customers question stances on environmental issues, public policy, and politics, Gellert says, depending on the nature of the comments, Patagonia will offer an explanation about why it has engaged on the issue and continue its work. But more often than not, he says, when criticism is levied on social media, it's "our community that defends us first."
The Right Way
Be bold. And be consistent. For smaller businesses looking to champion an issue, first think deeply about what you believe, and what you're willing to commit to long-term-- because most political issues are not going to be resolved in a year or two. And when you do speak, speak clearly and loudly: "If we see something, we speak to it, and we offer an opinion on it," says Gellert. "We try to be direct and clear--and not sugarcoat it."
Patagonia has been a longtime champion for environmental issues, so in the most recent election cycle, it endorsed four senatorial candidates from Arizona, Maine, North Carolina, and Montana who were "overwhelmingly focused on taking the climate and ecological crisis seriously."
Not sure what issue matters most to your brand? If you make a product, start by looking at your supply chain, advises Gellert, and see what improvements can be made there in terms of environmental impact. And again, remember that your political stance doesn't have to be partisan. Patagonia also worked on removing barriers to voting this year, which he says is "something that, candidly, every business should be pushing for."