Brands Answer Tumultuous Election Year With Merch and Initiatives

·8 min read

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, as tens of millions of citizens already cast ballots in early voting states, brands devised ways to make their own voices heard.

In a particularly turbulent election season in which President Donald Trump has repeatedly challenged the integrity of voting by mail and rallied his base to show up at polling sites, fashion companies jumped into the discourse by fervently promoting voting-themed collaborations with artists and designers, as well as various voting initiatives.

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Brands are sensing increasing pressure to weigh in on political issues, though they tend to be wary of taking stances that could alienate part of their customer base, experts said. Advocating for the nonpartisan endeavor of voting is a neutral way to engage audiences and seize on the energy of the moment, said Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind,” which came out this year.

“I think brands have realized, particularly smart brands have realized, that taking perspectives on issues is both a way to get attention and also a way to connect with customers,” said Berger.

“It’s not just about what you’re selling — it’s about what the meaning is in what you’re selling,” he said. “So brands are interested in not only selling clothing and fashion items, but also in selling an ethos, a way of being, an identity, a set of values.

“And encouraging people to vote is one way to dip your toe in broader social issues,” he said.

In the past few months brands issued special voting-themed collections, launched partnerships with voting advocacy organizations, set up donations to civil rights efforts, and waded into the logistics of civic engagement, such as voter registration and filling out census forms.

H&M USA, one of a number of companies this year to undertake a voter registration initiative, also launched a special collection in September billed H&M Votes x Blanks Artist Collab, selling hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with voting-themed graphics by artists. A representative for the retailer said the company’s voter registration initiative helped more than 4,000 people register to vote and to “make a plan to vote and understand their voting rights.”

The H&M Votes x Blanks Artist Collab also helped donate $70,000 to the local ACLU chapters of the hometowns of the artists involved in the collaboration, and the retailer also donated $100,000 to the ACLU this year to support voting rights efforts, according to the representative. The company will also give all its U.S. employees three hours of paid time off on Election Day to vote, the representative said.

Puma said in October that it teamed with Los Angeles Lakers player Kyle Kuzma, who designed a “Vote” T-shirt. The activewear brand also said it would donate $25,000 to support the ACLU’s campaign “to protect and expand the freedom to vote,” according to a statement at the time. A representative for the company also said it allows its U.S. employees paid time off to vote and that its corporate offices in the U.S. have “implemented a meeting-free day on Nov. 3 to encourage all to vote.”

The Detroit-based watch brand Shinola teamed with the “I Am a Voter” campaign by the philanthropy organization Entertainment Industry Foundation. Shinola linked up with the campaign, which itself sells voting-themed shirts and hoodies, to launch the “I Voted Detrola” timepiece and direct customers to voting information.

The brand also teamed with Detroit-based art publisher 1xRun to produce a small collection of “I Voted” watches, each sold for $450, and donated $3,000 to the Detroit Pistons’ Get in the Game: Vote initiative, according to Shinola. The accessories brand has said it has given its employees Nov. 3 off so that staff can vote and volunteer at the polls.

In October, jeans and apparel brand AG released a “Voter” capsule collection including sweatshirts and Ts with original graphic designs.

Corporate fanfare around voting comes in a particularly fraught election year. Trump has repeatedly tweeted for his campaign supporters to show up at election sites as “poll watchers” — a move that experts have warned could amount to voter intimidation, and which at least one trial court in Philadelphia has explicitly rejected so far.

The president has also tweeted doubts about the integrity of mail-in ballots, when such ballots have provided a safer alternative for millions of voters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Twitter, under its new policy aimed at curtailing misinformation on its site, began to hide tweets challenging the reliability of mail-in ballots behind its new warnings about claims that are “disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.”

“The president is certainly attacking both, in-person voting and mail ballots, both trying to prevent them and undermine their veracity,” said Berger, the Wharton School professor. “So if he loses, he has more ‘evidence’ that the result was wrong.”

Some in the worlds of fashion, sports and entertainment also banded together to address specific voting issues, including voter suppression.

Abrima Erwiah, one of the cofounders of Fashion Our Future 2020, said the group’s voting effort sought to direct customers to quickly register to vote and fill out the census. The effort followed in part from Erwiah’s conversations with her Studio One Eighty Nine cofounder, actress Rosario Dawson, as well as discussions during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer with fashion designers including Virgil Abloh, Tanya Taylor, Victor Glemaud and others.

The FoF effort used the “Action Button,” a product by tech start-up Speakable, to create widgets that fashion brands could add to their web sites. The buttons would direct customers to check their voter registration, register to vote, fill out the census and to get information about voting, Erwiah said. Another widget helped direct customers to e-mail their representatives in Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she said.

“We tried to make the actions simple by providing designers with information and buttons and actionable tools that can be fast,” Erwiah said. “This is not something that should end at this election, this is the beginning.”

The Action Button features will help the brands measure customer engagement with those actions, she said.

“In fact, through the button, we will ultimately be able to track results and see how each brand has performed and how the project performed so we can understand and learn how we can improve for the future,” she added.

Lakers star LeBron James has led a campaign billed “More Than a Vote,” and launched the “More Than a Vote” merch store along with creative agency Harper + Scott, a B Corp. All the proceeds of the merchandise would go toward the non-profit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to address voter suppression efforts.

Several other fashion brands and retailers have pushed their own initiatives, and similarly sought to show they’re walking the walk by giving employees time to vote and volunteer at the polls.

Nordstrom, which launched its “Make Your Voice Heard” initiative in September, said it has made Nov. 3 a holiday to allow its staff to vote, and that it is also “offering flexible scheduling for employees at our stores, fulfillment and distribution centers,” according to a company representative.

“We believe every voice matters and our country is stronger when we all participate,” a Nordstrom representative said.

Reebok, which put out a short film in October about voting, as well as a T-shirt line, said it would open its U.S. retail stores at 1 p.m. on Nov. 3, and give paid time off to employees volunteering at poll stations on that day. The company said it is also giving workers at its U.S. distribution centers paid time off and “voluntary time off” on Election Day, with the “opportunity to make up hours.”

“We’re encouraging our U.S. corporate employees to prioritize voting and manage their meeting schedule accordingly,” a company representative said.

The shoe brand Dr. Martens said in September that it teamed with the online voter registration support platform TurboVote to advise customers on registering to vote before deadlines. The brand said also that it would give its employees paid time off to vote in the presidential election.

“Eight hours of paid time will be provided for each employee so that we can register to vote, research the candidates and issues, and cast our votes (in person or by mail) in time for the Nov. 3 general election,” a company representative said.

The men’s fitness apparel brand Fourlaps said in September that it launched a limited-edition “Vote” T and plans to donate the proceeds from the sale to non-partisan voting advocacy group HeadCount. A Fourlaps representative said employees receive time off for voting and “have flexible schedules leading up to the election, and they are encouraged to prioritize efforts to vote.”

The nonprofit Favored Nations, founded this year by actor Noah Centineo and Josh Heller, and which also issued its own voting capsule collection in October, said its voting initiative used custom tracking links through groups including HeadCount and NextGen America to direct voters to register.

“Last month, tens of thousands of young people clicked through their custom links via NextGen America,” a representative for Favored Nations said.

Steve Madden, which teamed up in 2018 with the voting advocacy nonprofit Voto Latino, cofounded by Rosario Dawson, has continued efforts with the group this year, according to a representative for Steve Madden. Steve Madden’s corporate offices will also be closed on Election Day, the representative said.

“I think it reflects a broader trend we’re seeing within the private sector to become more politically active, to encourage citizen participation in the political process,” said Costas Panagopoulos, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science Northeastern University, who was a Congressional Fellow in the office of former Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.