Sunday, June 16

Some Businesses Make ‘Woke Free’ a Selling Point

Jonathan Isaac is a forward for the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic, but he is perhaps better known as someone who chose not to protest police brutality against Black Americans during a summer of widespread activism involving racial injustice.

Mr. Isaac, who is Black, turned that singular moment in July 2020 — when he decided not to join many other N.B.A. players in kneeling during the national anthem as the league restarted in a Covid “bubble” setting in Orlando, Fla. — into a platform as a conservative political activist. In 2022, he spoke at a rally of Christian nationalists and anti-vaccine Americans and wrote a book about why he did not join the protest. This year, he started Unitus, an apparel company centered on “faith, family and freedom.”

“I wanted my values to be represented in the marketplace, especially when it came to sports and leisure wear,” Mr. Isaac said in an interview.

Most companies used to do everything they could to avoid political controversies and, by extension, risk alienating potential customers. No longer. Seemingly everything in the United States is political now, including where you shop for socks and leggings.

Companies like Anheuser-Busch and Target have recently faced backlash from the right over marketing and advertising decisions that were seen as a liberal Trojan horse: Anheuser-Busch for a transgender influencer’s promotion of Bud Light and Target for its Pride Month displays.

Unitus is one of a growing number of companies — from clothing retailers to pet care businesses — trying to appeal to those who have recoiled from what they see as corporate America pushing a progressive, liberal agenda. Unitus is featured on PublicSq., an online marketplace aimed at promoting companies it calls “pro-life,” “pro-family” and “pro-freedom.” PublicSq. began in July 2022 and now has more than 65,000 small businesses on its platform, noting a spike in numbers after the Bud Light and Target disputes.

The platform offers “a nice, refreshing sort of break” from companies that have voiced more progressive views, said Michael Seifert, the founder and chief executive of PublicSq., mentioning businesses like Target, Ben & Jerry’s and Bank of America.

Since Donald J. Trump was elected president in 2016, large corporations have faced heightened scrutiny — both from potential customers and their own employees — concerning their values. This includes everything from how companies publicly reacted to policies like Mr. Trump’s ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries to political donations by companies or their top executives.

In turn, many companies made public declarations in support of diversity and inclusion. In 2018, Nike teamed up on an ad campaign with the former N.F.L. player Colin Kaepernick, who had started a movement of athletes kneeling to protest police brutality against Black Americans. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in 2020, many companies pledged financial support to and released statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2022, proposed legislation in Florida that opponents viewed as anti-L.G.B.T.Q. faced corporate resistance.

Tracy Rank-Christman, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the more leftward turn of some major companies in the mainstream could be driving away those with more conservative views.

“Some of these consumers are essentially having either a boycott or backlash to these brands that are engaging in behaviors that do not align with their values,” said Ms. Rank-Christman, who studies consumer psychology.

What’s driving the backlash is nothing new. According to research from Ms. Rank-Christman and other academics, consumers with what are known as “stigmatized identities” often take collective action against a company that they feel is attacking that identity. It has happened in the past with companies like Chick-fil-A, which drew criticism from the left for its support of conservative causes. In this case, Ms. Rank-Christman said, that identity is on the political right.

Those same views, however, are squarely within the mainstream on PublicSq. Mr. Seifert said that most businesses on the platform did not explicitly state their views, but that every business was required to check a box and sign a commitment to PublicSq.’s core principles. They include a belief in “the greatness of this nation,” a vow to protect “the family unit” and celebrate “the sanctity of life,” and a belief that “small businesses and the communities who support them are the backbone” of the economy.

What’s most important, Mr. Seifert said, is that businesses on the platform don’t antagonize “traditional values” in the way he said some large corporations have.

Still, some companies on the platform promote their conservative bona fides more emphatically than others.

Kevin Jones is the manager of Tiny Dog, an e-commerce pet supply business that he runs with his wife, Myra, out of Kingsport, Tenn. Mr. Jones said in an interview that he had been planning to work with another pet supplier in the state to expand his business, but that he had balked after it asked him for his stance on “the whole woke agenda.” That experience persuaded him to join PublicSq., he said, and market pet products to people who shared his values.

Tiny Dog features no political or social messaging on its website, but Mr. Jones said his company didn’t “cater to alternative lifestyles.” He also said Tiny Dog had received a significant uptick in interest since it joined PublicSq.

Others on the platform don’t necessarily view themselves as being conservative or catering to a particular political ideology. Mike Ritland, who founded a company that offers goods and training for dogs and is on PublicSq., said he didn’t think of his company as “anti-woke,” even though the platform calls itself that. He said he just wanted a way to increase his business.

But for the companies that cater to consumers who share their conservative values, it doesn’t matter if they turn away more liberal buyers, or ones who just don’t want to see “100% Woke-Free American Beer” when they crack open a cold one, as is the case with Ultra Right Beer.

In the short run, these companies know they’re targeting a niche market, said CB Bhattacharya, a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. They are concerned less about maximizing profit and more about standing by their values. For a company that’s genuinely concerned about catering to consumers who oppose abortion, for example, the bottom line may not be paramount.

“Even if it is just reds versus blues, they’re already slicing the market in half, and they’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t even care about the blues,’” Mr. Bhattacharya said.

But whether these companies are sustainable in the long run is a more complicated calculus. A company whose business model depends on politically disaffected consumers is subject to constantly shifting political winds, as much as it is to supply-chain issues.

The energy that fuels consumers to boycott offending companies, and seek alternatives, also tends to be fleeting. According to Mr. Bhattacharya’s research, the prominent boycotts of Chick-fil-A (by liberals) and Starbucks (by conservatives) in 2012 didn’t hurt those companies. In fact, sales increased, perhaps owing to the energizing of consumers who supported those companies’ stances.

An issue driving consumers to seek alternatives may also lose political salience, forcing businesses that have made it part of their appeal to change their approach. Nooshin Warren, a professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, said that if L.G.B.T.Q. rights became less politicized and more accepted across the country, conservative companies would have to rethink their strategy.

Another problem is that some issues important to conservative consumers, such as not buying goods made in China, run up against economic reality. Mr. Seifert said each business on PublicSq. is asked to make its products in the United States or to get as many of its products as possible from there, but he acknowledged that manufacturing in China is necessary for some.

A spokeswoman for Unitus said in an email that it made its products in Peru and Bangladesh, but that it was “committed to never sourcing Unitus products from China.”

For Mr. Isaac’s part, he hopes Unitus becomes a leader in producing sleek and comfortable apparel and champions his core values: “faith, family and freedom,” which, he said, are “under assault” by mainstream corporations.

“Unitus is, for me, giving people that encouragement to say: ‘No, I stand for these values. These values are important to me. And now I can wear them in a stylish, high-quality way,’” Mr. Isaac said.