How Levi's weighed in on gun violence

Levi's SVP & CCO Kelly McGinnis and Everytown's public affairs director Stacey Radnor explain how they teamed up on a very sensitive issue.

Levi's has taken a stand on several controversial issues (Photo credit: Getty Images.)
Levi's has taken a stand on several controversial issues (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

Brands are no longer content to ignore social issues and Levi Strauss & Co. recently unveiled an initiative aimed at ending gun violence led by president and CEO Chip Bergh.

Bergh wrote in an op-ed for Fortune: "As business leaders with power in the public and political arenas, we simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work. While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option."

Levi’s spoke out publicly on gun violence and called for tougher gun control laws and launched The Safer Tomorrow Fund for nonprofits and youth activists, partnering with Everytown for Gun Safety.

PRWeek got the inside story from Levi’s and Everytown on how they activated around this emotive subject.

How does Levi’s take a stand on issues?

Kelly McGinnis: We’ve weighed in on issues before and, as we saw tragedies happen time and again in this country, it started to feel like an issue being driven by youth. We weren’t seeing other companies influential in shifting public attention and public policy weighing in, besides the ones directly affected. It felt like a real gap.

Business has a critical role to play in addressing issues, and CEOs in particular have a voice to participate beyond their own businesses in the societies within which they operate. It squared with our core values of empathy, courage, integrity, and originality.

How did you choose this subject?

KM: This felt like a defining issue in the world today. The big lesson we learned when we asked people not to bring guns into our stores is that we’d have done a lot better if we talked to advocacy groups working in this space beforehand.

In making that statement a lot of folks came to visit us, so when we wanted to explore the issue this time we talked to them first to get smart and understand it. We spoke to Stacey at Everytown, the Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization, Michael McBride at Live Free in Oakland. They all came in and educated us.

How did you devise strategy and tactics?

KM: We wanted to move the cause forward in a positive way: What can that look like? We were open to any possibilities, from anonymous philanthropic dollars through to vocal leaning in.

It became obvious the reputation of it being an untouchable issue didn’t square with research on what Americans really believe. The advocacy groups made sure to ask not once but two, three, or four times: "You do understand we can’t dilute our message to make it palatable to your consumers or a corporate [agenda]? We have to be true to what we’re about."

What was Everytown’s experience of working with business?

KM: It had clearly been hard in the past, because they asked it time and again. Our CEO and CMO were very "eyes wide open" when we explored this. We’re an incredibly democratic brand, people of all walks of life wear our products. But our consumers are getting younger and more than half our business is outside the U.S., and this issue is not controversial with those groups.

We’ve never done this from a marketing perspective and we’re definitely happy to take a brave and bold stand. There will be critics and we weren’t surprised there was negativity, but we wanted to go in thoughtfully.

What did you learn from advocacy groups?

KM: Messaging, and that the sensitivity of every word matters, understanding how people read between the lines and take every word literally. Understanding how language has been used on the issue for decades and the signals related to word choices.

Be careful you don’t just look at one segment of your audience. It’s such a broad issue that affects so many communities and it’s easy to only be motivated by one group, such as the students at Parkland High. In reality it’s hitting urban, suburban, rural communities. We had to be inclusive, understanding, and deliberate about how we channeled our support.

What impact did Levi’s make?

Stacey Radnor: Gun violence is a uniquely American problem. Every day, 96 Americans are shot and killed and hundreds more wounded.

Those are consumers, neighbors, employees of corporations like Levi’s. Americans demand to live free from gun violence and business leaders hold a unique position in public discourse in this country.

Levi’s sent a clear message that it’s not acceptable to stand idly by, there’s significant momentum on the issue of gun safety, and we can all be part of the solution. It was outstanding to see a company take such a firm stance and say "we know there’s more we can do and we want to be engaged in a real way."

How would you advise companies on such emotive issues?

SR: None of us can wait for business to get involved, other Americans to get off the sidelines, or lawmakers to act, so there’s no perfect prescription. Look at how you want to engage on this issue and use your voices to create a culture of gun safety that will help keep customers, employees, and communities safer.

KM: The vast majority of Americans are very supportive of gun violence prevention and not necessarily educated about the staggering statistics associated with it.

The combination of heart and head in understanding that and framing it this way is undeniable. This isn’t about taking on the untouchable parts. This is common sense that gun owners and people who feel strongly against guns agree on. When we talk about it that way we understand the middle road is very wide and there’s lots of room for folks.

SR: When Levi’s did its op-ed other businesses reached out to learn more. They realize they have a critical role in creating a safer America. Join us - the gun safety movement is growing.

What is specific to the gun violence debate?

SR: We have five million supporters and some are gun owners. You’re seeing red, blue, and purple states passing good gun legislation. Since Parkland, 18 states passed meaningful laws, nine were led by Republicans. The idea that people from both party lines can’t come together isn’t true, because they are.

KM: We felt we could lean in, lend our voice, and help change the trajectory for future generations.

How important was it to position it as anti-gun violence over anti-gun ownership?

KM: It was very specific. Gun violence prevention is the broadest and most acceptable term in how people talk about this. It was educational to learn about the language used and that it’s the umbrella under which the reform most people talk about fit.

How did you prepare for the inevitable backlash?

KM: We know everyone isn’t going to like our position, but we’ve taken unpopular positions many times in the past. We always come back first to what we are hearing from our employees on what they want to talk about and where we [Levi’s] stand on this.

What makes sense from our values? We’ve been there before and we’re comfortable weathering that.

When the Boy Scouts said they wouldn’t have gay troop leaders, [Levi’s withdrawal of sponsorship] generated 135,000 negative letters in a day. We didn’t waver on that position and where we are today proves we were right. There are so many other examples of issues that got overwhelming support in the very near future [after they emerged].

We’re stewards of an iconic company we’re proud to be part of and part of that pride is taking courageous stands.

As a private company, how do you measure the business impact of what you did?

KM: We do have publicly traded debt, so while we don’t have shareholders we do have to explain ourselves to investors. We didn’t do this as a marketing exercise.

This issue and others people feel passionate about are inextricably linked to civic engagement and voting and we’ve lined up our resources behind voting and voter registration, from a new TV spot, to registering people in our stores, and a special collection. That’s the pivot for us - extra sales are not the driving force.

Should business get involved in social and political issues?

KM: These are case-by-case and company-by-company choices, but we believe business has a critical role in helping address social issues and, especially, gun violence. Our CEO believes he has a special place where he can influence. We’re a small company, but a really big brand and we take tremendous pride in being a catalyst and we’re comfortable doing that.

We have a young workforce and you have to work hard to differentiate yourself as an employer. Younger consumers and employees look for more from companies and brands. Living up to our values and taking actions that fit with them is the right thing to do and right for our business mantra.

How did Levi’s employees react?

KM: The primary reason people like working at Levi’s is they feel pride in the organization. When we take brave but difficult positions that’s the proof point.

One long-term colleague told us she doesn’t usually talk about this at work but she was one of the students at Columbine and was heartbroken this is still an unresolved issue 20 years later. That really resonated for us.

Many of us are parents and a number of folks said their children are subjected to drills in their schools. It’s humbling when you ask who’s been affected by gun violence and pretty much everyone in the room raises their hand.

What was Levi’s CEO’s involvement?

KM: He put his name on the op-ed and those were his words. He very much authored that.

This certainly wasn’t communications selling it in. It was organic and there were a lot of conversations around the organization. It was a place we had participated before. Not only had we asked people to leave their guns at home, we partnered with celebrity stylist Karla Welch and the proceeds went to Everytown.

It was all about how we can be most effective and make sure we were super-thoughtful - a little bit of head and heart. What are our values and can we make a difference?

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