Numerous companies spanning various industries, from fashion to pet care, have embarked on a journey to connect with consumers who believe that corporate America is promoting a liberal agenda. This shift has given rise to a burgeoning trend known as the “woke-free” marketing strategy.
One notable figure in this trend is Mr. Isaac, an African American athlete who gained attention in July 2020 when he chose not to kneel during the national anthem while the NBA resumed its activities in a Covid-19 “bubble” in Orlando, Florida. Rather than aligning with fellow players in their protest, he transformed this moment into a platform for conservative political activism. In 2022, Mr. Isaac addressed a rally of Christian nationalists and anti-vaccine advocates, further reinforcing his conservative stance. He also authored a book explaining his decision not to participate in the protest and founded Unitus, an apparel company firmly rooted in the values of “faith, family, and freedom.”
In an interview, Mr. Isaac expressed his desire for his values to find representation in the marketplace, particularly within the realm of sports and leisure wear. This marks a significant departure from the earlier approach adopted by most companies, which strived to avoid political controversies and potential alienation of customers. However, in today’s United States, virtually every aspect, including shopping for everyday items like socks and leggings, has become politicized.
Companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Target have recently faced criticism from the right for marketing and advertising decisions perceived as vehicles for a liberal agenda. For instance, Anheuser-Busch encountered backlash over the promotion of Bud Light by a transgender influencer, while Target faced scrutiny for its Pride Month displays.
Unitus is part of a growing cohort of companies, ranging from clothing retailers to pet care providers, seeking to attract individuals who recoil at what they perceive as an imposition of a progressive, liberal agenda by corporate America. PublicSq., an online marketplace established in July 2022, champions businesses it labels as “pro-life,” “pro-family,” and “pro-freedom.” The platform has seen a surge in participation, boasting more than 65,000 small businesses, particularly following the controversies involving Bud Light and Target.
PublicSq. serves as a haven from companies that openly espouse more progressive views, according to Michael Seifert, the founder and CEO of the platform. Seifert cited businesses like Target, Ben & Jerry’s, and Bank of America as examples of entities whose views differ from those represented on PublicSq.
The heightened scrutiny of large corporations regarding their values, a trend that emerged since Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election, encompasses various aspects, from public reactions to policies like immigration bans to political contributions made by companies and their top executives. Consequently, many companies have made public commitments to diversity and inclusion. In 2018, Nike collaborated with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick for an ad campaign, aligning with his movement against police brutality. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many companies pledged support for and issued statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2022, proposed legislation in Florida that was viewed as anti-LGBTQ prompted corporate resistance.
Tracy Rank-Christman, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggests that the leftward shift of some major companies may repel consumers with more conservative perspectives. She observes that these consumers may choose to boycott or criticize brands that engage in behavior misaligned with their values.
This backlash phenomenon is not novel and has been documented in research conducted by Ms. Rank-Christman and other academics. Consumers with “stigmatized identities” often unite in collective action against companies they believe are attacking their identity. Notably, Chick-fil-A previously faced criticism from the left due to its support for conservative causes, illustrating how this dynamic has played out in the past.
However, on PublicSq., these views are firmly within the mainstream. While most businesses on the platform do not explicitly state their views, they must commit to PublicSq.’s core principles, including a belief in the greatness of the nation, protection of the family unit, sanctity of life, and the significance of small businesses in the economy. Mr. Seifert emphasizes that businesses on the platform should not antagonize traditional values as some large corporations have done.
Some businesses on the platform, such as Tiny Dog, an e-commerce pet supply company, have opted to remain neutral in their messaging. Nevertheless, they have found success in catering to consumers who share their values. For example, Tiny Dog, based in Kingsport, Tennessee, has seen increased interest since joining PublicSq. Its manager, Kevin Jones, clarified that his company does not cater to alternative lifestyles and was drawn to PublicSq. after facing questions about his stance on the “woke agenda” while considering collaboration with another pet supplier.
Conversely, some companies on PublicSq. are less focused on promoting a conservative ideology. Mike Ritland, founder of a dog-focused company on PublicSq., does not view his business as explicitly “anti-woke,” even though the platform is labeled as such. He simply seeks to expand his business.
For companies catering to consumers who share conservative values, their priority is upholding their principles rather than maximizing profits in the short term. This niche market approach acknowledges that they may turn away liberal customers or those who prefer not to encounter overtly political messaging in their purchases.
CB Bhattacharya, a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that these companies are effectively dividing the market along political lines, prioritizing customers who align with their values. However, the long-term sustainability of such companies remains uncertain. They are susceptible to shifting political winds and supply-chain challenges.
Boycotts and consumer activism tend to be fleeting, as illustrated by past boycotts of companies like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks in 2012, which did not significantly impact those companies and may have even boosted their sales. As issues lose political prominence, businesses that have built their appeal around them may need to adapt their strategies.
Another challenge is that some issues important to conservative consumers, such as avoiding goods made in China, may clash with economic realities. PublicSq. encourages businesses to manufacture their products in the United States, but some acknowledge the necessity of sourcing products from China.
In conclusion, companies embracing a “woke-free” approach are responding to a growing segment of consumers who seek alternatives to businesses they perceive as promoting a liberal agenda. This trend has given rise to platforms like PublicSq., where businesses align with conservative values. While catering to this niche market, these companies face challenges related to sustainability and evolving consumer sentiments. Nevertheless, they remain committed to upholding their core values, even if it means turning away customers who do not share their beliefs.