Small businesses must weigh the risks and rewards of identity politics
The Biden administration is creating many opportunities for small businesses this year. Thanks to the government’s multi-trillion-dollar stimulus programs, there’s a plentitude of grants, loans and funding relief options for restaurants, movie theaters, retailers and other businesses impacted by the pandemic. There are spending programs – both established and planned – for infrastructure and social services that could result in profitable government projects. There are tax credits, subsidized training and assistance programs to help small businesses recover from the 2020 recession.
But thanks to Washington, there’s also something else that’s driving the growth of some small businesses this year: identity politics.
Just think about it. If you’d like to exploit your race, the environment could not be better. So, stand up, stand out, be proud and identify yourself as a Black, Asian, Latino or “person of color” business owner. Go ahead and hang signs on your store windows, wear T-shirts that support your causes and openly participate in activities about race in your community. Step up and support programs for minorities. Apply for minority grants. List your business on websites supporting your race. This is your time.
Many smart business owners I know are doing this. They believe that it is good, smart marketing for 2021. But if you’re uncomfortable taking a stand on race, don’t worry. There are other ways business owners are leveraging identity politics to sell their products.
For example, if you prefer to make your gender a thing, why not? Women business owners are stepping up for attention. Transgender entrepreneurs are now proudly and loudly out and about, as are many in the LGBT community. Preferred gender pronouns in email signatures say, “Hey, gender issues are important to me in case you’re thinking of buying my products.” Yes, even sharing your preferred sexual partner is no longer taboo — it’s just good PR. So good for them.
The causes you identify with may also grow your revenues. Take, for example, the popular vegetarian restaurant chain in my hometown Philadelphia that not only decided to increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour for their workers but also issued a press release inviting the world to congratulate them for doing so. Or the large corporations that issued statements that voiced their opposition to Georgia’s voting rights bill. Or the thousands of small businesses that become “B-Corporations” to show the world that they are ethical and caring, nurturing and inclusive, kind and considerate.
Thanks to the political climate, there are lots of issues you can champion. There’s paid family leave. Child care. Opposition to global warming. Women’s rights. Gun rights. Abortion. Mask-wearing. Marijuana legalization. The list goes on and on. Pick an issue. Take a popular stand. Announce it to the world. Sell your products.
Which brings me to…me.
I’ve been sitting on the sidelines through this current era of political soul-searching. Maybe I should jump on the train too. I’m Jewish. That’s an ethnic group, right? Maybe I should go on Twitter and loudly complain about Henry Ford’s history of antisemitism and start a campaign to “cancel” Ford cars. Or remind people that Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was racist and so maybe we should cancel him too. Given our thousands of years of persecution, there’s no end to the list of aggressions inflicted upon my people for me to champion.
If I do that, I’m sure to win over other Jews (and sympathizers) who agree with me, and maybe I can sell them some of my products. But wait. There’s a catch.
By playing identity politics, aren’t I also potentially alienating my customers who drive Ford vehicles or enjoy reading Shakespeare? Aren’t all these other business owners concerned?
Maybe they just know their numbers better than I do. Maybe, by choosing sides on a contentious issue in this hyper-politicized environment, they have calculated that the number of customers they will gain by broadcasting their opinions outweigh the customers they will lose. It’s a Big Data world, so I’m guessing all of these people have that kind of data at their disposal. I’m also assuming that, by publicly getting political on a prickly issue, they’re taking into account the livelihoods of their employees and their families if – as a result of their points of view – they lose so much business that they wind up going out of business.
They know this, right? They must.
If they know all that then I say, good for them: Marketing is marketing, so play to your strengths. As for me, unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of data. And I care about the future of my business and the welfare of my employees and their families. So, for now, I think I’m just going to keep the whole Jewish thing to myself.
Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.