Invasion of the MBA Liberals

Business Week, October 19,1992

PETER BARNES’ slogan might be, “Reach out and lobby someone.”  On Sept. 30, the president of Working Assets Long Distance, a San Francisco-based long-distance discount service, got many of his 50,000 subscribers to campaign for allowing abortion counseling at federally funded clinics.  That day, 30,000 letters and postcards from Working Assets customers deluged the U.S. Senate.  Each letter contained a minia­ture coat hanger, a pro-choice symbol.  “We want to give people the oppor­tunity to communi­cate in the same timely way that lobbyists do,” he says.

Barnes and his customers didn’t get their way, but this new breed of cor­por­ate arm-twisters is undaunted.  They hope to use 1960s-style activism as a savvy, 1990s-style marketing gimmick.  “Social awareness in life-style fashion” for the decade, says Susie Tompkins, founder of Esprit de Corps, the San Francisco clothing maker and retailer.

But is it just a passing fancy?  At least 70 corporate executives bet it won’t be.  Such companies as Working Assets, Ben & Jerry’s, Lotus Develop­ment, Reebok and Hasbro have joined a group formed earlier this year called Businesses for Social Responsibility, aimed at countering the pin­striped conservatism of other business groups.  So far, BSR has lobbied unsuccessfully to get Congress to cut funding for Vice-President Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness, a darling of right-wingers.  BSR has yet to pick its next cause, but it’s more likely to push for environ­ment­al awareness than, say, trimming dairy price supports or reducing the number of toy commercials on Saturday morning kids’ programs.

Others have chosen to project a socially conscious image without actually engaging in controversy.  Natural soap and shampoo seller The Body Shop is registering voters in its stores, as is Esprit.  And menswear maker Members Only has devoted its entire fall ad budget of $3.5 million to a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The bottom-line benefit of all these efforts isn’t clear.  Working Assets and BSR have yet to score a lobbying victory.  And while activism might get free publicity for Esprit and Members Only, others in the rag trade think they know what really catches the public eye.  As retail consultant Alan G. Millstein notes, “Calvin Klein knows that the most important marketing tool is sex.”

It’s hard to top topic A, but Barnes, Tompkins & Co. aim to make their liberal agenda a close second — even as they try to make a few extra bucks.