Patagonia and Politics

Are the Company’s Candidate Endorsements a Step Too Far?

10/24/18 – – The headline on Patagonia’s October 19, 2018, media release was anything but understated: “Patagonia Makes Another Bold Move to Protect Public Lands.” Making news and perhaps history, the outdoor clothing and gear retailer announced its endorsements of two candidates for U.S. Senate in the 2018 national elections.

Corporations rarely endorse individual political candidates. (Endorsing specific policies is generally a lot safer than endorsing politicians, who take positions on multiple issues having nothing to do with your business.) This is the first time for Patagonia. In fact, up until the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision in 2010, corporations were prohibited from directly advocating for a candidate’s election or defeat. So, companies, consumers and yes, crisis counselors, will be watching how this all plays out.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, (“Where Crisis Come From”), I review nine common sources from which survival-threatening situations spring: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. Patagonia’s “bold” endorsements of Montana’s John Tester and Nevada’s Jacky Rosen — both Democrats — clearly fall into the politics category of risk. (Update: Tester and Rosen won.)

What makes the world of politics so hazardous for companies and corporate leaders? The American public is pretty much split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Beliefs are passionate on both sides. There’s very little common ground. Picking one side over the other on almost any issue will strengthen your bond with some audiences, while turning off and perhaps deeply offending others. Your embrace of political bumper stickers is sure to bring plenty of blowback and possible boycotts.

Patagonia is aware of the risks they’re taking. In the endorsement release, they explain:

“This is not born from a desire to get into partisan politics. In fact, it’s the opposite — it’s about standing up for the millions of Americans who want to see wild places protected for future generations. That’s something we will always do, regardless of political party.”

How can companies wanting to be relevant and stay true to their purpose navigate the treacherous waters of politics without triggering a crisis?

Look, I still think it makes sense and is doable for most businesses to stay as apolitical as possible, even when they’re dealing with sensitive social issues. But as consumers increasingly demand to know how companies stand on causes important to them, there are useful lessons to be learned from Patagonia’s unfolding experience.

First of all, these endorsements are not a stunt. Patagonia, since its founding in 1973, has been earning unquestioned bonafides when it comes to environmental leadership and activism. They’re the real deal, and know who their customers are, intimately. The company’s mission is, “To build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Tester and Rosen, both representing states with front-burner environmental issues, were chosen, as the release states, because Patagonia believes the candidates have taken informed positions and are running their campaigns, “to protect public lands and waters.”

Second, these endorsements are not out of character. The company hasn’t been shy. In fact, taking this next, very political step is consistent with the “bold” messages delivered by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, who once proclaimed in an interview on CNN, “The President stole your land . . . I’m not going to sit back and let evil win.”

So, there are good reasons to believe this could turn out okay for Patagonia. But, before you send your own company into battle, ask yourself if you’re armed with the authenticity, clarity of purpose and message, customer understanding, and product quality Patagonia has achieved over its more than four decades in business.

If not, resist the  temptations of politics. You’ll need a lot more than a warm coat and gloves to get you through a political storm.

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