The Power Of Purpose: How Brands Can Help Drive Voter Engagement In The 2020 Election
Ashley Spillane is the founder of Impactual LLC, a social impact firm that works with philanthropists and nonprofits to solve some of the country’s most pressing social challenges. During previous tenures leading organizations like Rock the Vote, The Atlas Project, and Democratic GAIN, Ashley forged large-scale cause marketing partnerships with companies including iHeartRadio, Microsoft, Verizon, USAToday, Twitter, and Tinder.
Under her fellowship with the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Ashley worked alongside fellow, Sofia Gross to produce a case study that details how companies can best encourage their employees and consumers to vote. The report, available to read in full online, reveals how companies have the ability to increase voter turnout in 2020.
I caught up with her to find out more about how companies like Snapchat, Blue Shield, Patagonia, Spotify, Target, Endeavor, Gap, Twitter and more are helping drive civic engagement.
Afdhel Aziz: Ashley, welcome. Please tell us a little about your journey from Rock the Vote to what you are doing now?
Ashley Spillane: While leading Rock the Vote, I forged partnerships with major companies like iHeartMedia and Tinder. We drove campaigns that leveraged the influence of the music industry to encourage young people to vote. I saw the impact that companies can have getting their consumers and employees excited about voting — and I wanted to help more of them do it and do it well. I swapped a high profile position for the chance to work behind the scenes with executives that wanted to create nonpartisan, on-brand initiatives that motivated people to vote.
In 2018, after hundreds of companies helped generate the highest voter participation we’ve seen in a century, I wanted to learn more about what each company did, how they did it, what they learned, and how they measured their impact. I teamed up with another fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Sofia Gross, and studied eight unique companies’ efforts. We published a case study in June 2019 in an effort to share with other companies how to put together effective nonpartisan, pro-voting initiatives ahead of 2020.
Aziz: What do you think are some of the brands getting it right in terms of civic engagement?
Spillane: In order to get more people interested in voting and to make sure they have the information they need to show up, we have to meet them where they already are — and brands are where they’re at. The best civic engagement initiatives get that, in order to promote voting, they have to reach their audience with an authentic message that makes sense for brands. I remind companies all the time that they know their employees and consumers best: how to talk to them, how to motivate them, how to deliver important information to them. They should solicit best practices and advice from nonprofit organizations then translate that into what works with their audience.
For example, Snapchat used their unique platform to remind young voters to register to vote in-app, built tools to help their users find their polling location ahead of election day and also created geofilters for users to share snaps of themselves having voted. Endeavor sends voter registration and Election Day reminders to employees in 40+ states as a part of its HR platform. Another case study participant, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, provided employees with information about key civic dates throughout 2018, including party caucuses, primary elections, bipartisan candidate forums, and Election Day, and set up a selfie station in the office to encourage people to share “I Voted” photos with their co-workers.
Aziz: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about brands and civic engagement?
Spillane: Some companies are hesitant to commit to civic responsibility programs for fear that it will look “too political.” In reality, polling and our case study interviews show widespread support for these initiatives: among employees and consumers, across age ranges, and among members of both political parties. The goal with company initiatives is to make elections a culturally celebrated moment so voters feel empowered to cast a ballot, regardless of who they’re voting for. Brands don’t have to pick a side to convey the message that who represents you in political office matters.
Aziz: Should brands try and do both employee and consumer engagement when it comes to this topic or just pick one or the other?
Spillane: I think this is a decision that is particular to each company. Many start with internal programs because bigger, public-facing ones can be intimidating or feel risky. Starting at home can make a big difference. Research shows people want to work for companies that promote democracy and engage in these kinds of initiatives. MTV’s CEO sends an email reminding staff they can take time off to vote. Patagonia closed its stores on Election Day so employees could vote. In addition to being good for democracy, these are all great brand-building tactics. Every company we studied said they got a surprising amount of positive feedback from employees and consumers alike.
The most interesting opportunity I see for brands in 2020 is to go big with consumers. Democracy is trending. People are paying attention and being engaged is cool right now. Companies can capitalize on this — Election Day is the Super Bowl of democracy. Companies will want to be in that conversation. No one thinks a company has to endorse a team to buy a Super Bowl ad. Similarly, companies don’t need to support or oppose a candidate to get involved in Election Day. They can still make the best apparel for the voting booth or the best snacks to eat while watching election night results. Or companies can just get attention by giving time to their employees to vote or by supporting parties at polling places.
Aziz: Thanks Ashley, super interesting! Finally what are 3 of the best principles brands should think about when considering how to do this work impactfully and authentically?
1) Early Planning makes implementation easier – We are one year from the 2020 presidential election. Now is the time for companies to decide how they want to engage in the election, determining the audience, the goals, and the activations to run around things like voter registration deadlines and early voting windows.
2) Keep your brand voice – All of the companies we spoke with said the key to success in a voter engagement program, regardless of the scope and scale, was staying on brand. Knowing who is in the audience, what resonates with them, and how they perceive your company is core to running a successful business. Those principles should be applied to voter engagement tactics as well.
3) Lean on Peers and civic engagement experts to support voter engagement efforts – As mentioned, one of the biggest concerns that companies have about encouraging people to vote is doing so in a way that is not partisan or political. Thankfully, most companies (including our study participants!) are open to sharing what is working and there are also nonprofit partners that can help in crafting nonpartisan messaging and campaigns and navigating implementation strategies.