Following the long and contentious 2016 election cycle, political issues remain top of mind for consumers. Marketers are likely wondering whether brands can or should utilize this heightened consciousness as a potential point of connection with consumers — or whether they should distance themselves from this combative political morass.
Should brands take stands on political and social issues, economic policies, environmental regulations, humanitarian crises?
To begin our inquiry into this topic, Omnicom Media Group Primary Research conducted four national online surveys, in October and November, among a total sample of 3,518 consumers 18+, to explore consumers’ perceptions of brand involvement in a variety of political/social/economic but non-partisan issues.
In general, nearly half (42%) of consumers surveyed believe it is not at all appropriate for brands to take a stand on issues that affect voters, and 29% claim that they actively avoid brands that make their opinions public — and this does not even consider whether or not the brand’s opinion is in alignment with their own. When this factor is taken into account, about a third (32%) of consumers say their purchase decisions are affected by brands whose publicized opinions do not support their own, while a quarter (24%) say that even when a brand’s opinion about a voting issue does align with their own, their purchase decisions about the brand are still affected. While these findings may seem disheartening for brands who want to take public stands, they do not show the whole picture.
Consumers express widely differing opinions about the level of appropriate engagement depending on the specific cause involved. Almost two-thirds (63%) of consumers actually consider it appropriate for brands to publicize their opinions about some issues. Not surprisingly, less controversial areas such as protecting the environment (42%) and responding to humanitarian crises (38%) are deemed more appropriate for brands to speak up about than the more divisive issues, such as social issues (29%), economics (21%) and foreign relations (15%).
Psychographics and demographics correlate with consumers’ receptivity to brand involvement. When asked which issues are personally most important to them, 24% of consumers said economic, 21% social, 14% environmental, 8% foreign relations, 3% humanitarian, and 31% none of the above. Those consumers who feel strongly about either environmental (43%) or social (39%) issues are four times more likely to feel it is appropriate for brands to add their opinion to the national conversation of any issue than those that don’t feel strongly about any issue (10%).
There are also differences in sentiment among generational cohorts. One in four (26%) Millennials consider it appropriate for brands to make their opinions known, while only 16% of consumers age 65+ do. This older consumer segment is also more likely than the total population (39% vs. 29%) to avoid brands that take public stands on issues that affect voters, regardless of the issue, while Millennials are more receptive (38%) than consumers 55+ (20%) to brands taking public stands, specifically to those brands within the healthcare/pharmacy category (further discussion of product categories below).
We asked consumers about 19 product categories, and they told us that healthcare/pharmacy (27%), consumer tech (21%), and insurance (18%) are the three most appropriate categories for which brands can take a public stand on issues. Consumers are much less tolerant of snack (11%), non-alcoholic beverages (10%) and jewelry (10%) categories that publicize their opinions about voting issues.
The methods in which brands take a stand affect the level of perceived appropriateness. Consumers are more receptive when brands express their opinions through their charitable donations (34%), corporate volunteering and event sponsorship (30%), and through advertising (20%); they are less receptive to brands’ posts on social media (15%) and alignment with a political party/politician (8%).
Our research indicates that in addition to advertising and marketing efforts, brands can connect with consumers via national issues they are passionate about as long as they do it right. To do so, brands should have a clear understanding of consumers’ perception of appropriateness concerning which issues and methods of expression are acceptable.
Future research should look to explore if differences exist in receptivity between generational cohorts and/or voting issue alignment. In addition, as our research starts to evolve, product category can affect consumer perception of brand involvement appropriateness, but more research is needed to fully understand the differences.