What the Silencing of Levi’s Politically Active Brand President by the Company’s Politically Active CEO Tells Us About the Challenges of Mixing Business and Politics
2/21/22 – – Last week we learned that Jennifer Sey, brand president of Levi Strauss & Co., resigned and turned down a $1 million severance offer after being pressured to pull back from her public opposition to pandemic-related school closings. This headline-worthy story shines a light on one of the most difficult challenges faced by companies choosing to jump into politics: Who decides which political battles are worth fighting and which are out of bounds?
As readers of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient and this blog know, I discourage business leaders — especially those running public companies and marketing products with mass consumer appeal — from stepping into the briar patch of politics. There’s lots of pressure on executives to speak out on social issues important to their customers. PR gurus point to research confirming that consumers prefer to do business with companies sharing their values and priorities. The problem is, not all Americans share the same beliefs or political positions. In today’s toxic political environment, split pretty evenly between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, there is little tolerance for opposing views.
For a company like Levi’s, the world’s largest manufacturer of denim jeans, signaling any political bias risks angering millions of potential customers. That’s a devastating proposition for any mass-merchandiser.
This same turbulence is inevitable within companies. As many employees may be pro-life as pro-choice. A CEO may want to support Democrat candidates while the board of directors favors Republicans. Shareholders represent every conceivable point of view and resent being left out of decisions regarding political activism.
And, as the Levi’s saga reveals, political disagreements may destroy the chemistry within executive management teams.
Jennifer Sey felt empowered to speak out on her own in opposition to public school closures in San Francisco because she had been encouraged to be politically active over her 20-year Levi’s career and was modeling the behavior of the company’s CEO Chip Bergh. The Wall Street Journal explains: “Levi’s has been outspoken on social issues. It has advocated for immigrants and gay rights. Mr. Bergh has also called for federal legislation to prevent gun violence and rallied against prospective state laws that some say could unfairly disenfranchise voters.”
Of course, even when executives participate in public debate as private citizens (when she entered the school-closing battle, Sey did so as a mom with school-age children living in Levi’s headquarters city of San Francisco), they carry their corporate identities with them. But that didn’t seem to bother Levi’s until Sey embraced a position counter to the orthodoxy of San Francisco’s very liberal power structure.
In an essay posted online by Sey (linked below and well worth the read), she tells of a dinner in 2021 at which Bergh told her she was on track to be Levi’s next CEO: “The only thing standing in my way, he said, was me. All I had to do was stop talking about the school thing,”
What makes the company’s intolerance of Sey’s stand particularly untimely and out-of-step with evolving public sentiment is the fact that just last week San Francisco residents voted overwhelmingly to recall three members of the San Francisco School Board who had spent more time trying to change the names of city schools than working to keep them open.
The Sey/Levi’s divorce should be a cautionary tale for executives enticed by the siren call of social activism. Before taking the first step into a political minefield, think about how you and your company will decide which causes to embrace and which to reject. What external and internal voices will you listen to when committing to controversial stands? What policies and priorities will guide the well-intentioned but potentially brand-damaging actions of your employees?
For most companies, the best decision may be to stick with business and zip it when it comes to politics.