In 2018, voter turnout in the U.S. midterm elections was the highest of any midterm election in the last century. Of the many factors contributing to this achievement, hundreds of companies were encouraging their employees and/or consumers to vote. Beyond driving voter participation, all of the companies we interviewed believe their civic engagement programs benefited their brand in a number of ways, including raising brand awareness, strengthening relationships with employees and shareholders, and even elevating the company with elected officials. According to the companies we spoke to, these initiatives elicited positive feedback on social media, in stores, and through employee communication channels.
In 2018, voter turnout in the U.S. midterm elections was the highest of any midterm election in the last century. Of the many factors contributing to this achievement, hundreds of companies encouraged their employees and/or consumers to vote. For these companies, “get out the vote” programs not only helped get more voters to the polls but also helped to raise brand awareness, strengthen relationships between employees and shareholders, and even open dialogue with elected officials.
Understanding this dynamic is increasingly important; we know politics at work can be tricky, but there’s evidence that corporate political engagement is beneficial to businesses. Studies show that consumers are more loyal to brands that take a clear stance on issues they care about. But taking a partisan approach to civic engagement can alienate employees or customers in today’s hyperpartisan environment. Our study finds a sweet spot for firms: being pro-democracy and pro-voter, without being partisan.
Following the 2018 election we studied eight companies with voter engagement strategies to better understand how corporate voter engagement efforts work, for democracy and for business. The companies we worked with were Gap Inc., Endeavor, Patagonia, Snapchat (where one of us is on the public policy team), Spotify, Target, Twitter, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (BCBSM). These eight companies shared a considerable amount of information with us about why they got involved in this work, what kinds of tactics they employed, and what kind of responses their programs garnered. They gave us an honest look for our case study about what worked and what didn’t work for their organizations and helped us develop five takeaways for business leaders thinking ahead to 2020.
We studied two types of programs: those focused on employees and those focused on consumers. The employee-focused programs used a variety of methods to register employees to vote, educate them about the issues, and get them to the polls. For example, Endeavor, Gap Inc., and Target all used email reminders and links to voter registration information to promote voter participation; Patagonia closed its stores to allow workers the day to vote; and BCBSM held bipartisan candidate forums and created voting guides to help employees understand the roles of each elected officeholder. Gap and BCBSM both leveraged existing staff capacity, modest budgets, and workplace events like voter registration drives that provided employees with key information to help them register and get to the polls. These campaigns were especially effective among younger populations — those most likely not to vote — who nearly doubled their participation from the 2014 election.
The consumer-focused activities that we studied were led by tech companies. Snapchat, Twitter, and Spotify used their platforms for sweeping public-facing campaigns, motivating their users to participate on Election Day and reminding them of the steps necessary to vote through on-brand tactics like alerts, user notifications, curated playlists, and influencer engagement. In addition to using these tactics to combat misinformation voters face, they also used their platforms to encourage users to share their voter experiences, which helps create a nationwide culture of voting and applies social pressure to others to participate.
In our discussions with these eight companies, five lessons surfaced consistently:
Focus on participation over politics. It was important to the leadership and staff in these companies to keep their efforts nonpartisan, because their goal was to strengthen democracy, not advocate for a particular candidate or party. Core to all of the messages these eight companies promoted was the idea that “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just be sure to vote.” Craig Sammit, the CEO of BCBSM, explained, “Politics are polarizing. But if we are going to create inclusive corporate environments, that requires allowing for a range of political perspectives.” One of the companies that has a longstanding employee engagement program said new employees often worry they will be told how to vote. After they see the materials, hear from leadership, and attend events, they understand that the program is more about expressing their opinions than about expressing the company’s. Voter registration and voter turnout are not partisan initiatives, and we heard from company leaders that these efforts were a safe space to engage. As Susan Goss-Brown, president of Gap Foundation, said, “It’s about everyone having a voice, everyone is equal when we vote.” This viewpoint is a foil to the increasing amount of partisan CEO activism that business leaders are undertaking on a range of issues.
Even small efforts are meaningful. All eight companies found benefits to running a civic engagement program regardless of how many resources they could invest in such efforts. For example, BCBSM’s yearlong program to promote civic participation, which included candidate forums, voting information guides, and an “I Voted” selfie station, helped get 88% of employees to the polls. Twitter, Snapchat, and Spotify invested staff time to develop in-app user experiences and product that encouraged civic participation.
That being said, there is a ladder of engagement, and companies can create civic participation programs starting from the lowest rung and building up over time. In its first year doing this program, one company that posted to social media and sent a reminder email to vote on Election Day received lots of positive feedback from employees who made time to vote as a result. It’s clear that companies do not need to spend a large amount of cash for an initiative to be worthwhile. In fact, some companies spent as little as $5,000–$25,000 on the programs, excluding staff time.
You likely already have the staff you need. All of the companies we interviewed relied on existing full-time staff to execute their programs. Most companies had one or two dedicated people managing the companies’ efforts, and some had other employees volunteering time to support, but no company had a full-time civic engagement staff person. The key to success for many of the staff charged with running these programs was to have the full support of the C-suite, as well as to have explicit ownership over the program to ensure appropriate coordination across different sections of the company. This helped prevent confusion and duplicate work, and also ensured that the programs could appropriately solicit input from a wide range of employees. The amount of time staff put into these programs was directly proportional to the scope and scale of the program they were running, although none spent more than 50% of their time in a given week on this work.
All eight companies that participated in this study relied heavily on the guidance of nonprofit organizations, and in some instances even local election officials, to assist in building their programs and to provide support. Each company benefited from the expertise of many nonprofit organizations, and the key to their success was translating the expertise from these partners into a program that was on-brand for their employees and consumers.
Early planning is crucial. The most successful companies created and began implementing their plans early. BCBSM, for example, introduced its programs a year in advance. While Gap launched its initiative just a few weeks before the voter registration deadlines, with hindsight, all the companies agreed that planning time was essential to creating maximum impact.
Staying on-brand is key to authenticity. Finally, all of the companies agreed that some effort was better than no effort, especially if it was within the established brand voice. According to them, the overall look, feel, and voice of a civic engagement program needs to be consistent with the company’s overall message to consumers to have maximum impact. For example, Snapchat created geofilters for users to share photos and videos of themselves having voted, Spotify generated election-themed playlists for listeners, and Gap’s social media posts featured the company’s logo and were written in a tone similar to others in its feed. It was critical for companies to take recommendations from civic engagement experts and put their own spin on efforts to make them unique, resonant, and clearly something the brand would do.
Beyond driving voter participation, all of the companies we interviewed believe their civic engagement programs benefited their brand in a number of ways, including raising brand awareness, strengthening relationships with employees and shareholders, and even elevating the company with elected officials. According to the companies we spoke to, these initiatives elicited positive feedback on social media, in stores, and through employee communication channels.
This massive corporate push undoubtedly helped spur the record midterm turnout, alongside other “get out the vote” programming. But the fact remains that despite the high turnout, less than 50% of the eligible population cast a ballot in the 2018 election, and the last presidential election wasn’t much better: Less than 60% of the eligible population cast a ballot in the hotly contested 2016 race.
With the 2020 presidential election already a part of the daily conversation in America, it is not too early for companies to start planning voter engagement programs. In addition to the benefits of running a civic participation initiative, one case study participant pointed out that there were drawbacks to not running one. In making the decision, he said, “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we taking a risk by not engaging? By not celebrating Election Day?’ I do think doing nothing is the real business risk now.”