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The U.S. is more divided than ever. Your business could be the bridge

A strategist and former political adviser counsels companies to listen to consumers, stay true to their values, and find common ground.

The U.S. is more divided than ever. Your business could be the bridge
[Source illustration: Janoj/iStock]
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President-elect Joe Biden is expected to call for unity in his inaugural address on Wednesday, but he faces an uphill battle: America is more politically divided as at any time in our nation’s history. In November Biden received 81 million votes, seven million more votes than his opponent, Donald Trump. Despite Biden’s victory, a vocal minority of citizens have refused to acknowledge his win, culminating in the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6 (an act, in my opinion, of domestic terrorism).

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Extreme partisanship goes beyond party lines, its symptoms having deep ramifications across issues of systemic social, racial, and environmental justice, too. And in many ways, some of the most significant issues of 2020—from the discourse around mask wearing to the distrust over the vaccine, often along party lines—have shown us what happens when truth takes on multiple definitions. It has also shown us what happens when Americans stop listening to one another.

Where do businesses, then, lie in bridging this divide? According to the latest update to the Edelman Trust Barometer, seven in 10 respondents expect CEOs to “step in when government does not fix societal problems,” and 86% want corporate leaders to speak up on social issues. Hiding on the sidelines is no longer an option, so I would urge them to be out in front.

Businesses are in a unique position to create what politicians and advocacy groups have found elusive: a post-partisan community that shows citizens that they have the power—and desire— to solve these problems, all while creating a safe space where consumers can thrive.

If this feels like a profound opportunity, it is. Historically, the Fortune 500 ranks have stayed as far away from politics’ “thorny issues” as possible, at least publicly. Today, political participation, not aversion, is good for business—but it’s not exactly the “fresh start” many are claiming.

Companies will not be able to appeal to everyone—not now, and not ever—and that’s kind of the point. Rather than taking strictly partisan stands on every passing breaking-news item, businesses should always refer back to their fundamental values, the likes of which are, hopefully, already in place. Companies should be prepared to examine what is both beneficial for and supportive of their greater community, and then, most importantly, act on it.

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Consider Microsoft, where politics has never been off the table. Though the Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits corporations, such as Microsoft, from contributing to political parties, the technology giant has made its partisan stance known at key junctures in the last four years. In June 2019, in the midst of a spate of extreme, Republican-led immigration restrictions, Microsoft announced a partnership with the International Rescue Committee to use technology channels to help teach digital skills to displaced peoples and refugees, especially women and girls.

Elsewhere in the technology sector, both IBM and Salesforce have donated services and resources to help power global COVID-19 vaccine distribution. In the case of the latter, Salesforce aims to help administer 2 billion vaccines equitably to 190 countries by the end of 2021.

Such pointed expressions of a brand’s core values do not only inspire shoppers. Businesses can normalize those issues for audiences as well. In fact, businesses can even be the trusted source of information and truth that communities are seeking.

Take the well-documented intersection of racial and environmental justice, in which the climate crisis disproportionately affects low-income communities of color. Whereas the very existence of climate change and systemic racism have become politicized controversies among Republican party leaders, Apple is doubling down in the opposite direction. In June, the company launched a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative led by Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives (and President Obama’s former EPA administrator).

Neither Microsoft nor Apple issued an official presidential endorsement, but they didn’t have to. Labels are manufactured, meant to divide us, and their actions spoke louder than any partisan statement ever could. After all, that’s what happens when businesses serve their own consumer communities, not political parties.

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This means that companies must go beyond top-level partnerships with organizations on the ground. Our firm helps businesses connect their values to their customers. We see firsthand how consumers crave authenticity from their brands—and unity in their country. It’s businesses’ responsibility, then, to use their platforms responsibly and earnestly. Patagonia is most often the shining example, having built its entire business model on what it stands for, almost more than what it sells. The outdoor apparel retailer has gone big with its advocacy, even going so far as to sue President Trump for slashing two of the nation’s national monuments by up to 85%. Patagonia has also approached environmentalism more granularly, launching one of the retail world’s first upcycling programs, called Worn Wear, which extends the life of its garments and reduces consumers’ need to buy more over time.

In the lead-up to the November election, you may have noticed an uptick in a very specific flavor of company advocacy. A whole new legion of brands that, ordinarily, tend to stay out of politics started issuing calls to vote—and called it activism. “Encouraging registration is a way for a corporation to project a civic-minded, nonpartisan image at little cost,” Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies voting, told The Atlantic. These businesses did suffer a cost, though, and it was losing that authentic connection with their communities.

Gap (infamously) tried. On the morning of November 3, still four days away from any sort of conclusive election result, the retailer tweeted a picture of a sweatshirt, its zipper dividing one blue half from one red half. Its caption—”The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward—was surely meant to underscore messages of unity, but that was not the general public sentiment at the time. The post was quickly deleted, though not before it went viral.

Looking ahead, brands should plan to transition from vague, catch-all statements—be they in support of a nonpartisan unity or general voting advocacy—to more specific forms of civic engagement, ideally backed by years of work in those chosen areas. Leaders of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s say they had to speak out after the the killing of George Flloyd and the Capitol riots; their statements are an extension of their core values, supported by years of anti-racist work at the grassroots level.  Customers, meanwhile, have rewarded the brand with loyalty: parent company Unilever saw at-home ice cream sales climb 26% in the second quarter of 2020.

On the eve of President-elect Biden’s inauguration, business leaders may well be wondering if a a post-partisan world is even possible. For companies, an important first step is to engage in the conversations that affect their communities the most, and crucially, it’s up to businesses to listen.

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Here’s five ways businesses can best get involved:

  1. Don’t see red or blue. Realize that a whole lot of this country (and likely, your consumer) voted for the “other guy,” so work to find common ground in the issues that most authentically reflect your own company’s values. Consider the effort by home improvement retailer Lowe’s to encourage people to make lawn signs thanking frontline workers during the early days of the pandemic. It was true to the retailer’s DIY ethos and celebrated an unimpeachable group of unsung heroes.
  2. Choose wisely. Look inward, and don’t always jump at the next big issue. In today’s day and age, there are too many—and it is too easy to screw it up. Instead, examine what matters to you, your employees, and your consumer. What role does your company uniquely play to help better the world?
  3. Be accountable, because you’re going to be held accountable anyway. Make statements, and back them up with facts and action. Choose partnerships that matter and tell organizations you’re in it for the long haul. Give your dollars, your time, and your intelligence. In many cases, organizations are in desperate need of the ingenuity and passion your employees bring to your company every day. Help them unlock it for groups that need them.
  4. Wait to talk. Always be listening—not because you want to focus-group every decision, but because feedback makes us all better. Assemble a diverse and inclusive advisory board that can speak to a full range of lived experiences, and create a safe space for them to do so.
  5. Know where to draw the line. Just because your business is committed to the pursuit of a more unified future does not entitle you to overlook more extremist ideologies in the name of post-partisanship. Set boundaries internally, and stick to them.

Hildy Kuryk is a partner at Artemis Strategies, a boutique consultancy that specializes in corporate development and strategic advising. She spent 15 years in professional politics, serving two U.S. presidents in various capacities, and she previously served as executive director of communications at Vogue US.