NEW YORK, United States — Michael Kors wants you to vote. In fact, the brand wants you to vote so badly that it’s selling an $850 cashmere sweater with the word stitched into it.
As the US presidential election enters its final month, the Capri-owned brand is hardly alone in encouraging customers to perform their civic duty. Pyer Moss revived the “Vote or Die” T-shirt popularised during the 2004 US presidential election, while Christian Siriano sent models down his backyard runway wearing vote-stamped face masks, wide-brimmed boater hats and at least one full-length gown.
The list goes on: Vineyard Vines, Studs, Lunya, Stuart Weitzman, American Eagle, MM La Fleur, & Other Stories, Brother Vellies, La Ligne, Tory Burch, Clare V., Universal Standard, Prabal Gurung, Urban Outfitters, Madewell, Fabletics, Gap and Foot Locker are among the brands and retailers selling voting-themed gear, organising get-out-the-vote campaigns with non-profit partners (for example, 100 percent of sales of the Michael Kors “vote” sweater benefit the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund) or have pledged to give paid time off to employees on Election Day. Often, it’s all three.
The trend reflects just how deeply politics have permeated nearly all aspects of American life — even the act of voting itself has become central to partisan debate around whether falsehoods over widespread voter fraud could delegitimise the election itself. Where divisive elections were once viewed as radioactive territory, brands have leaned into the upcoming vote as an opportunity to connect with consumers.
According to data compiled by communications firm DeVries Global, 60 percent of Americans agreed they would like to see brands, including fashion brands, “encourage people to vote,” and 65 percent showed support for brands participating in the political process. Nearly half of Americans surveyed said they support brands making donations to political organisations.
Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, view the November election as a critical juncture determining the country’s direction into the abyss or toward salvation. Either way, brands are betting knee-high riding boots and tote bags will be how they dress for the revolution.
Signalling Values Without Virtue-Signaling
When it comes to choosing a president, brands risk wandering into deep fissures in the American political landscape. Even a “get out the vote” campaign can prompt the uncomfortable question: vote for who?
Thakoon Panichgul and Tory Burch are among over a dozen designers who created merchandise for Joe Biden’s campaign. Most brands avoid explicitly endorsing a candidate, however. Still, their voting campaigns can act as a wink and a nod to liberal customers and employees, without necessarily alienating conservative consumers.
As with the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence over the summer and into the autumn, brands that remain silent — or worse, engage shallowly in the conversation — stand to lose the most.
“It’s a real risk to do nothing now,” said Ashley Spillane, president of consulting firm Impactual. “Complacency is what is problematic for a lot of consumers and a lot of employees at companies.”
Those brands without a strong track record of social involvement also risk setting off alarm bells in the minds of consumers. For luxury fashion brands in particular, selling high-priced “vote” products and donating a marginal percentage of sales to non-partisan organisations is ripe for backlash, said Davianne Harris, partner and head of strategy for advertising firm Oberland.
Gen Z Values
Promoting democracy and free and fair elections is the safe option. They are also popular with Gen Z, many of whom will be new to the polls — and perhaps, new to a brand — but eager to participate.
“Endorsing values is much more powerful,” however, when it comes to appealing to America’s youngest voters, said Oberland’s Harris.
Levi’s, which launched its “Vote About It” campaign with model and brand ambassador Hailey Bieber and director Oge Egbuonu in August, said its efforts were squarely targeted towards encouraging first-time voters and Gen Z to participate this cycle. The effort began in the runup to the 2018 midterm elections for local and congressional lawmakers, where turnout is usually low.
In addition to selling “vote” merchandise and releasing a public service announcement, the Levi Strauss Foundation is donating $2.6 million towards voting initiatives in 2020, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Fair Count and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“These Gen Zs and Millenials are also key to our brand’s relevance so there is overlap with how this effort is targeted and who we engage with to drive a brand connection,” said Levi’s Chief Marketing Officer Jen Sey.
Levi’s said it does not endorse candidates or parties — few publicly traded companies do — though some independent designers have also tempered their approach.
Toronto-native Tanya Taylor created Hillary Clinton t-shirts in the 2016 election cycle but is instead focusing this time on more general “vote” merchandise. Taylor also joined the group Fashion our Future 2020, an initiative launched by Studio 189 co-founder Abrima Erwiah and announced ahead of New York Fashion Week, which aims to increase voter participation through “exclusive merchandise drops, virtual programming and digital content.” (It’s worth noting that Clinton appeared in Taylor’s NYFW video PSA.) Other designers participating include Virgil Abloh, Batsheva, Brandon Maxwell, Jonathan Cohen and Mara Hoffman, among others.
Politicians and people who want your vote should earn it, and people should be entitled to vote for whoever they want to vote for.
Taylor, whose brand is known for its size-inclusive, colourful printed dresses, said that her biggest customer base is in Texas and Florida, two traditionally Republican states. Taylor said that she made the decision to promote voting efforts this cycle because it aligned with the values shared by herself and those on her team.
“That felt like a real problem that we could help solve, rather than just shouting someone’s name,” Taylor said.
Black Voices Calling for Change
The protests against racial injustice and police killings of Black people has underscored the urgency some brands and designers feel in encouraging voting.
“If we can turn out Black voters this November like we did in 2012, I strongly believe that this election can yield better results,” said Brother Vellies designer Aurora James, who has publicly announced her support for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Erwiah, the Studio 189 designer, said that a number of events impacting the Black community — from the passing of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis to the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police — have been “a lot to process.”
She said she is a registered Democrat, but that Fashion Our Future 2020 is meant to encourage disenfranchised voters — often Black Americans who feel their voices are not being heard — to participate, rather than explicitly backing the Biden-Harris ticket.
“Politicians and people who want your vote should earn it, and people should be entitled to vote for whoever they want to vote for,” said Erwiah. “The system works better when we all participate.”
The Business Case for Voting Campaigns
In addition to helping foster trust with consumers, low-cost voter registration campaigns also happen to help drive sales for brands.
For Tanya Taylor, launch day for the brand’s Vote 2020 campaign with a designated section of its direct-to-consumer website and merchandise was also its second-most trafficked page on the site, with nearly seven times the average daily traffic, Taylor said. Many customers who visited that section of the website also purchased face masks. Studs, an ear piercing and jewellery brand, said that its Vote capsule collection (released in partnership with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote organisation) resulted in the brand’s best sales day ever.
And for brands with physical retail stores, the opportunity to engage consumers is even more targeted. Bode, a menswear brand, offered to help shoppers register to vote at its Lower East Side Manhattan store. Nordstrom gave consumers who have opted for curbside pickup the opportunity to register to vote through a QR code that leads to the retailer’s Make Your Voice Heard site, launched in partnership with When We All Vote and the National Urban League. At Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in New York, customers can register to vote, complete absentee ballot applications and check their registration status as part of the retailer’s partnership with nonpartisan organisations HeadCount and Vote.org.
“[Retailers] have been decimated by the pandemic…and they’re really thinking of trying to think outside the box,” said Hildy Kuryk, partner at consulting firm Artemis Strategies, who previously worked as executive director of communications for Vogue. “It’s smart business.”
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