A year ago, polling experts predicted the 2020 presidential election would bring record turnout among voters. After all, 2018 saw the highest engagement for a midterm election since 1970 (with 49% participation), and presidential contests typically drive even more people to the polls.
But the arrival of the coronavirus has upended all previous calculations. On the one hand, the country’s dual economic and health crises could inspire higher participation — as could the social justice movement sweeping the U.S. On the other hand, virus fears may keep some voters home on election day, along with confusion over state and local rules for early and absentee voting.
That’s why the footwear and fashion industries are stepping up their efforts this year to help get out the vote among both their employees and consumers.
Galvanizing the Public
In June, Tapestry-owned Coach made its first foray into politics when it announced a partnership with More Than a Vote, a nonprofit created earlier this year by LeBron James and other pro athletes, aimed at combating voter suppression in the Black community.
“We were excited about partnering with MTAV because of their commitment to specifically addressing voter suppression and misinformation,” said Carlos Becil, chief marketing officer of Coach. “For them, it’s more than just getting out the vote; it’s making sure citizens’ rights are protected.”
He said that Coach has promised to mobilize its full resources, including employees, stores and collaborators, to amplify the organization’s mission.
Meanwhile, Steve Madden has been working to boost voter engagement, in partnership with Voto Latino, an advocacy group co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson. “As a convicted felon whose voting rights were taken away during my time of incarceration, I recognize the importance of exercising the right to vote,” Madden told FN.
Early in the year, his brand launched an in-store campaign to register young customers. Though the coronavirus halted some of those plans, Madden said other efforts are underway: “We will be shifting gears and focusing on digital efforts across all channels through November. Safety at the polls and voter education will be a big part of that messaging, in addition to voter registration and how to vote by mail.”
The shoe industry also is helping to inspire more civic participation among its own workers.
Last month, the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America launched the online education center ShoeVoter.info. “Voting and voter registration is a challenge. It’s not complex, but there’s a process and bureaucracy to it,” said Andy Polk, SVP at FDRA. “We felt like this election year, with everything going on, we could build something that would be a one-stop shop for footwear companies to get their employees educated and activated.”
The nonpartisan online hub, which is maintained by a third party, offers users a range of information, including their state’s registration rules and deadlines, absentee ballot guidelines, voting locations and requirements, plus a list of candidates in their district.
In 2018, Walmart launched a similar site for its employees, but not all companies have the resources to invest in such a platform. And Polk said ShoeVoter.info can be particularly useful for national or regional chains.
“If you’re a Foot Locker or Famous Footwear, with employees all over the country, it’s hard to educate every single section of those [team members] with all those rules,” he said. “This is a personalized website where you plug in your mailing address and it tells you exactly what you need to know. It simplifies the complexity of the decentralized election system that we have.”
Beyond simply educating workers, a movement also has been underway in the private sector to create more opportunity for voting.
In 2018, Rose Mercario, then-CEO of Patagonia, shared an open letter encouraging companies to follow the brand’s lead and close on Election Day. According to Corley Kenna, director of global communications and public relations at Patagonia, the message soon evolved into Time to Vote, a corporate pledge that garnered promises from more than 400 businesses to give employees time to cast their ballots in the midterms.
For 2020, the initiative has an even larger goal, to recruit 1,000 companies. “We’re well on our way to reaching that. We’re nearly at 600 companies as of [late July],” said Kenna.
Major retailers have already committed to the pledge this year, including Walmart, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI. And outside of the initiative, a growing number of footwear companies are opting to give workers the day off to vote.
Madden told FN his company will close its corporate U.S. offices on Nov. 3 so that employees can head to the polls, and Birkenstock announced that election day will now be a paid holiday for its roughly 200 U.S.-based employees.
“We are certainly not doing it to make a political statement or a social statement,” Birkenstock Americas CEO David Kahan said of the decision during a conference call announcement with The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. “We really just want to empower our workforce.”
Behind the Moves
Kahan raises an interesting point: Why should companies engage in get out the vote efforts, given that have no direct bearing on the bottom line?
For most, the initiatives are nonpartisan and dovetail with their existing corporate social responsibility missions, similar to philanthropy and sustainability.
“It’s an extension of a company’s community engagement,” said Polk. “Part of that is good citizenship, and the essence of a citizen is voting.”
But there is also a heightened expectation among both consumers and employees that businesses engage in the major cultural and political issues of the day.
“CEOs recognize that they can play a meaningful role in supporting our democracy — and this movement is a way to do that,” said Kenna. “No matter your party affiliation, the issue of empowering eligible voters to get out and vote is one that we can all get behind.”
Meanwhile, some companies are going beyond a nonpartisan message. Coach, for instance, is highly engaged in fighting racial injustice and said it will bring that into its voting efforts.
“Our country is in a unique moment in time where racial inequalities, specifically those affecting the Black community, have reached every corner of the national dialogue,” said Cecil. “Coach believes American companies need to take responsibility to drive change, and this is a year of change.”
Patagonia, meanwhile, plans to again put its weight behind climate issues, as well as land preservation and environmental justice.
But not all companies will have the same comfort level with politics, explained Polk, noting that it depends how far they’ve waded into it in the past, and who is at the helm. “It feels authentic to hear Steve Madden or Kenneth Cole talk about these issues because they obviously care about them,” he said. “The biggest challenge for companies is to put stuff out there that feels authentic. You don’t want to get involved in politics if you don’t really care about it.”
As for Madden, his commitment is clear: “There is a lot happening in the world right now and it is important that we empower everyone — especially the younger generations — to take a stance, let their voices be heard and allow them to shape their futures by voting.”