The Politics of Shopping

I love shoes (understatement) and, obviously, retail innovation. So when I learned a few weeks ago that Barneys New York was opening a really cool new shoe department, I was reaching for my purse and heading out the front door. Finding out that during this launch 10% of any shoe purchase would benefit the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sent me running up Madison Ave.

On that same day, the digi-sphere started clucking about Chick-fil-A’s ongoing contributions to groups that lobby against and Dan Cathy’s stance against gay marriage; and whether my friends agreed or disagreed with their values, they made sure to shout about it on Facebook!

Here were two companies clearly articulating their side of this major political agenda – during an extremely heated election year.

So as a marketer, I wondered: When the pressure to make a political statement peaks, do customers look closer into the politics of their favorite brands to inform their purchase?

For example, some people may choose the notoriously liberal Ben & Jerry’s to make their political statement. Maybe pro-gay-marriage “Hubby Hubby” or the anti-super-PAC “Americone Dream.” Or post-election “Yes Pecan” (“Yes We Can”) created for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
As marketers, we often recommend affinity-focused feel-good campaigns to help drive choice and loyalty, like (non-polarizing) environmental causes or disease research. With causes like these as part of a politician’s platform, will consumers decide to try a competitor’s superpremium ice cream to show where they stand? Maybe then they’d choose Haagen Dazs, so they can “Buy a Carton, Save a [Honey] Bee.”

Some companies will capitalize on the spirit of election year without choosing a side. And so “hip” 18–30 year olds may choose Urban Outfitters for a “2 Legit 2 Mitt” T-shirt or one that calls for “Four More Years” of Obama. I would love to see those sales figures used as a polling device! Over the last several elections, the unofficial “poll” 7-Eleven conducted with their choice of presidential candidate cups closely predicted those election results.


But what if the brand is not joining the conversation (outwardly) at all? Do customers think about what party or policy is being funded by the brands they buy — if these companies are donating to one side or another? Do they do their research before they reach for their wallets?

Whether your mind-set leaves you seeing Red or feeling Blue, how does that shift your Brand decisions at the store? It’s something to think about, and something we at TPN will be watching closely over the course of this season. And of course, we are hoping for free Starbucks again this year to tell the world “I Voted” on November 6th.

Here are a few resources if you’re curious about where your favorite brands stand: 

Rocking the Vote from 30,000 feet

We’ve reached cruising altitude. So it’s time to turn your mobile device back on. Maybe you’ll play someAngry Birds, listen to music, or catch up on that book you’ve been dying to read. But what if you could do something more productive, something more civic?


If you’re on select Virgin America flights this fall, you can actually register to vote. From 30,000 feet. Just grab your smartphone, connect it to the in-flight Wi-Fi, and scan a QR code from your back-of-seat entertainment system. You’ll be taken to a mobile registration site, provided by Rock the Vote.


For over 20 years, Rock the Vote has helped register young(er) voters at places they frequent, like concerts. And this partnership with Virgin is a natural extension of “disruptive democracy” – getting people involved where they least expect it. In 2008, they registered over 2 million new voters, and they’re hoping to beat that this time around.


Think about it: You’re stuck on a plane with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Why not take a few minutes and use your smartphone to become an active participant in our democracy?


From a marketer’s standpoint, this promotion fits right in with Virgin’s hip and forward-thinking brand. They’re not taking sides but showing concern for our future by providing a public service to their customers, using cool technology. It’s a win-win for everyone.


Now, if I could only vote from the window seat, we’d really be in business.