Visitors to Patagonia's website in December found something unusual. Rather than panoramic vistas of mountain ranges or close-ups of fleece jackets, there was a stark message written in white against a black backdrop: "The President Stole Your Land" and a prompt to "take action now."

 

Though Patagonia has taken bold stances on environmental issues in the past, this is one of the most in-your-face examples of the brand's messaging. Patagonia's response was designed to publicize President Trump's decision to reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. The brand wasn't just grandstanding, either. It lobbed a lawsuit against Trump that month.

Businesses have been politically active before, but in recent years there has been more of it. What determines action is often a mix of deeply held beliefs and cold calculations about what consumers - especially Millennials - expect. In practice, that means there's danger in saying something, but increasingly there's an even greater danger in saying nothing.

Millennial expectations

It's no secret that it's a tight labor market and that businesses are bending over backwards to lure Millennials. It's also true that company values play into Millennials' job choices more than preceding generations. A recent study from PR agency Weber Shandwick found that 44% of Millennials would feel more loyalty towards their CEO if he or she took a stand on a hotly debated issue versus 19% who said they would not. Similar research from the PR firm found that 47% of Millennials think CEOs should speak up and take active stances on social issues. Some 51% of Millennials surveyed said they are more likely to buy products from companies that have activist CEOs.

In addition to expecting more from their CEOs, Millennials also hold their employers accountable for adhering to a set of ethos that correspond to their own. Diversity and inclusion programs are a regular feature of many startups and established tech firms. Google, for instance, has spent $265 million between 2014 and 2016 in an attempt to make their sprawling organization more diverse (results remain to be seen). Since Millennials also skew Democratic, it's likely that many are looking for such CEOs to take on Trump and his policies.

Taking action

Companies are meeting those expectations in unprecedented ways in the Trump era. For instance, Microsoft President Brad Smith said that if the government is looking to deport DREAMers who are Microsoft employees that "they're going to have to go through us to get that person." Verizon and Comcast have also condemned the potential repeal of DACA. A large group of CEOs have signaled their opposition by resigning from the Strategic and Policy Forum, President's Trump's top business advisory panel.

But such activism predates the Trump era. In 2015 Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff threatened to scale back his investment in Indiana after then-Governor Mike Pence approved a religious freedom law that critics said would cause businesses to discriminate against gay people. That protest prompted Pence to water down the measure to ban businesses from refusing service based on the customer's sexual orientation.

In 2016, Apple, Cisco and eBay also tried to block a bill in North Carolina that sought to ban transgender individuals from using bathrooms based on their sexual identity. A year later, the state repealed the bill under political, social and corporate pressure.

Not for everyone

While I admire those stances, I don't pass judgment on businesses that have opted not to wade into political debates. In the case of Benioff and Apple's Tim Cook, their activism reflects deeply held beliefs. Part of Benioff's business mission is social - he wants to make the world a better place in the ways he sees fit.

In a society in which everything from watching football to buying organic vegetables is seen as a political act, it's tempting to want to declare your tribalist identity. If that's who you are as a CEO and you have the support to do it, then that's a smart thing to do. If you'd rather not alienate 30-50% of your market though, that's also understandable.

But for many companies, saying nothing is becoming less of a tangible option. That's especially true as the current administration continues to challenge beliefs that are now accepted by corporate America. For instance, there is little debate in the business community about climate change, same-sex marriage and corporate inclusion policies. CEOs risk being cast as hypocritical if they ignore challenges to these beliefs. That's the current bind ensnaring our top CEOs. Though the last thing a business leader wants to do is to alienate a potential customer, the current political environment frequently makes speaking up the only viable option. So when it's impacting your bottom line, hurting recruiting, or frankly, it's just the right thing to do, you need to take a stand and speak up for what you believe.

Published on: Feb 8, 2018