Dear CEO: Mixing politics and business

mixing politics and business is risky business

Mixing politics and business: Risky business?

Just as politics is a risky topic at a party, most of us believe it’s dangerous to mix politics and business. But in these days of social media and online outrage, old rules are constantly up for question.

penzeys-ceo-letter on mixing politics and business

You may not know Penzey’s, unless you’re a cook. They’re a popular online and retail spice merchant (Side note: I am a fan: Get spicy. Once you buy cinnamon online, you’ll never buy it in the grocery store again).

Their social presence has always been personal, with heartfelt letters from their CEO, Bill Penzey but in election 2016, his letters turned from homey missives about baking pies for our loved ones to the storms outside the kitchen window.

The issues aside, there’s a lesson — or at least, an example — for those of us in business, because Penzey has published his business results in a “letter to CEOs.” The letter is repeated below because oddly, I can’t find it on the company website  yet (it appeared on Facebook today). He says that 3% of their customers abandoned them in a rage, while “online sales are up 59.9%, gift box sales up 135%.”

Mixing politics and business is a personal choice, not a business strategy, and it’s clearly not broadly applicable. But I take it as one example of where close relationships with customers change the rules. I’ve written before about empathy — it’s not just a modern buzzword — and I think the reason this worked in Penzey’s favor is that he was talking to his customers, heart to heart, over a cup of coffee and a slice of pie at the kitchen table. Whether we agree with his stand or not, it’s authentic. And it appears to have resonated.

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Dear CEO,

Please give us a moment to share something we hope you will find very valuable.

Our customers come from all walks of life. The kindness of cooks knows no borders or divides. In the aftermath of the election, seeing the intentional damage inflicted on so many outside the white heterosexual male world, we raised our voice. We felt we had to. We did this because we are Penzeys. The Spice business is so intertwined with history that it’s not really possible to have one without the other. It became clear to us that we are now in a moment history will long have its eyes upon. For the sake of our customers, and for the sake of future generations, we felt the time had come to stand on the right side of history.

And while the reasons for why we took a stand might be specific to our unique outlook, what we learned actually applies to all commerce in the United States. What we learned is that President-elect Donald Trump has no real support. Voters, sure, but no constituency. Running a campaign on “that horrible-terrible-woman who should be locked up,” while at the same time working to raise fear of minorities among white voters with limited access to education, clearly achieved its goal. But none of it left Americans with any sense of connection to the candidate they actually voted for.

Willing to take a hit for what is right, we did what we did. In the two weeks since, online sales are up 59.9%, gift box sales up 135%. And we didn’t have a catalog arrive in this window this year, while last year we had 1.1 million! Yes, maybe for the moment we have lost 3% of our customers because of the so-called “right wing firestorm.” And, yes, they send emails of rage, and ALL CAPS, and bad language with the hope of creating the perception that they are bigger than they really are. But what we learned is that, in terms of retail spending, Donald Trump simply has no one supporting his views for America. He has no constituency.

America’s Values, on the other hand, have a really sizable constituency, and that constituency moves quickly to support those that stand up for the values of America. If, as a company, you have values, now is the time to share them. You may well lose a chunk of your AM radio-listening customers, but if you really are honest and sincere, don’t be surprised to see your promotions suddenly, finally, find active engagement with the Millennial generation.

And the time for this really is now. We understand all too well that, with the holidays, December is a tough month to get things done. We understand that a change in direction will not be easy, but you are where you are because you don’t need things to be easy. If you wait until after the wheels come off the track for the incoming administration, this moment will have passed. And while there’s no bad time to do the right thing, to do the right thing at the same time as others in your industry will work so much better than waiting until someone else has shown the way.

In this moment there is finally the real chance to unite our nation in our shared rejection of sexism, homophobia, and racism. This is your chance to stand up for America’s values and make January a tent pole in your company’s history. Opportunities to do the right thing at the time when doing the right thing makes all the difference come once in a lifetime. Make your history proud.

Thanks for reading,

Penzeys Spices

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