BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

How to Market to a Divided America

After a bitterly contested presidential election, the United States remains as deeply divided as ever on everything from politics to race at a time when consumers want the brands they buy to reflect their values, presenting a tricky challenge for business leaders.
Times Square in New York City, after Joe Biden was projected to win the US Presidential Election. Getty Images.
A boy with the United States flag stands in Times Square — prime advertising space for America's biggest brands — after it was announced that Democratic candidate Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States. Getty Images. (VIEW press)

On Sunday, the day after the US election results were announced, the maternity line Hatch posted an image of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with the caption, “What an incredible day for all moms, women of colour, and dreamers for change. Congratulations to our country’s first Madame Vice President-elect.”

The picture received nearly 7,000 likes, compared with a few hundred for a typical post. But the comments told a different story: anti-abortion users attacked Hatch for featuring the pro-choice Harris, while others appeared to be holding out hope that Trump could still win a second term. “Unfollow!” “It’s not over!” “Trump 2020!” were some of the replies. Hatch lost 1,400 followers in the hours after the post went up, though, by the end of the day, its count was up slightly.

“A lot of the feedback that we saw on Instagram was about how [Harris] is a baby killer and ‘how can we support her?’ and just really harsh things to say,” said Ariane Goldman, Hatch’s founder and chief executive.

Hatch wasn’t the only brand in the pro-Biden/Harris camp to face a conservative backlash online. Oscar de la Renta’s post featuring the next First Lady Jill Biden wearing one of the brand’s dresses was flooded with angry comments, while plus-size apparel label Universal Standard was accused of “alienating all your conservative customers” by congratulating Biden on Instagram. Jonathan Simkhai disabled the comments section on its post.

Most large brands stuck with anodyne messages about “unity” and “coming together,” perhaps fearing that congratulating the winner of the election would be a bridge too far for the 70 million-odd Americans who voted for Trump. They too received backlash, but from progressives and conservatives alike, who were not yet ready to let political bygones be bygones.

Companies may be wishing for a return to a pre-2016 era before they were forced to insert themselves into partisan politics. But this week has shown that it’s not going to happen, even with Trump on his way out of the White House. And though online comments rarely reflect real-world sales, brands still need to find ways to market to consumers on both sides of the divide — or acknowledge which side they’re on.

“While some brands may continue attempting to appeal to essentially everyone, American society will remain sharply polarised and that could mean the challenges many brands were set to face in a world of ‘if you’re not against it, you’re for it’ will persist or expand,” Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at advertising firm GroupM, wrote in a November 7 newsletter.

Goldman, for one, described the Harris post as a “no brainer” for the brand, even after the backlash.

“We’re celebrating Kamala not because of her political beliefs but because she is a woman who made it, and who was the first woman who’s made it into this role, and we are really proud as women, we stand together no matter what our political views are,” Goldman said.

When the call for unity is “predatory”

In the months leading up to the US Presidential election, fashion brands ranging from Christian Siriano to Pyer Moss encouraged consumers to vote, a tried-and-true way to signal a brand’s core values without wading too deeply into the issues themselves.

The have-it-both-ways strategy bombed after the votes were counted, however. Many brands saw calls for unity as a way to avoid congratulating — and, in 2020, therefore appearing to endorse – a candidate. Consumers saw it differently.

It’s like not giving someone enough time after they died before you make a joke about them. It seems so opportunistic.

Ralph Lauren, the brand, posted a photo over the weekend with a quote from its founder: “Today, let us be inspired by our common humanity and the values that are the bedrock of our country — hope, optimism, and freedom for all.”

Banana Republic’s version read: “Today we can all be proud as America witnesses record-breaking voter turnout. Regardless of our differences, now more than ever we are committed to working for a Better Republic.” Gap posted a video of a red-and-blue hoodie being zipped up, a symbol of bipartisan unity.

On Instagram, Ralph Lauren fielded eight times as many comments on its post-election post than a typical photo, many urging the brand to stay out of politics entirely. Banana Republic received a similar response. Gap quickly removed its video after it was roundly mocked on Twitter.

Calls for unification in the emotional aftermath of the election “seem predatory” to many consumers, said James Bailey, professor of leadership at George Washington University.

“It’s like not giving someone enough time after they died before you make a joke about them,” Bailey said. “It seems so opportunistic.”

Comments are not sales

Gap and Ralph Lauren are global brands that have an incentive to appeal to customers of all political stripes. Increasingly, they are the exception rather than the norm. In a polarised America, conservatives and liberals shop and dress differently: Wrangler jeans have been embraced by people who tend to vote Republican, while Levi’s have seen growing popularity in blue states and cities, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. Many online brands cater overwhelmingly to young, liberal shoppers in big cities; the Instagram users demanding those brands congratulate Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett along with Harris probably weren’t their customers to begin with, said Bailey.

If you’re affiliated with a particular political or social cause, [consumers] don’t care what side of the aisle [the brand] is on.

Rather than cast a wide net, experts say it’s often a better strategy to try and reach those consumers who already buy into a brand’s values (and its products.) Brands should stick to issues that support their broader marketing, said Evan Polivy, director of brand development at apparel brand incubator Stateless.

Outdoors brand Patagonia frequently tussled with the Trump administration on environmental issues, while Nike’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement dovetails with the views of its young, diverse customer base, as well as the athletes on its endorsement payroll.

Those brands and others have learned that consumers may be more willing than ever to post negative comments online, but that sort of blowback isn’t going to move the needle on sales. Those conservative activists who burned their Nikes after the brand signed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2018 didn’t spark a mass movement (and actually boosted the brand’s sales.)

An avalanche of negative social media comments might be alarming, but it often takes repeated offences against a brand’s core customers to have a real-world impact.

“If you’re affiliated with a particular political or social cause, [consumers] don’t care what side of the aisle [the brand] is on,” Bailey said.

As for Hatch, the brand didn’t suffer any losses after posting the image of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In fact, it hit its sales targets in the week after the election, negating earlier trends in consumer spending where shoppers spent less money at the brand after major political events like the presidential debates.

Still, Goldman said Hatch is only likely to speak up again if one of the brand’s core tenets becomes part of the national conversation — if access to abortion is threatened at the Supreme Court, for instance.

“What I’m trying to do is ... make all women feel comfortable and safe as much as possible, but also by doing good by representing what’s meaningful to us,” Goldman said.

Related Articles:

Why Fashion Brands Keep Telling You to Vote

This Election Year, Politics Is Good Business

Anna Wintour on Politics and the Fashion Business in Trump’s America

In This Article

© 2021 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The BoF Sustainability Masterclass Series
© 2022 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions and Privacy policy.
The BoF Sustainability Masterclass Series