New Research Encourages Brands To Weigh In On The Big Social Issues
The days of companies being able to safely sit out the big social and political issues of the day are no more. Whether or not you ever intended to engage, the odds are great that events will at some point conspire to demand that you speak up. Silence can be viewed as complicity, and it can allow others to seize control of the narrative and use your brand as leverage in whatever their agenda might be.
For any brand managers who are still not convinced, or wondering where to begin, new research further reinforces the need to engage and provides guidance on how to do it. Sprout Social, a provider of social media management, advocacy and analytics solutions for businesses, surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. consumers for its recent report to better understand how and where they want brands to step into the big issues of the day.
The first big message for brands? Consumers want you in the game. Two thirds (66%) say they want brands to engage in social and political issues, with a majority citing social media as the best channel for it. Andrew Caravella, VP Strategy & Brand Engagement at Sprout, told me that the numbers get even higher for consumers 18-34 years old, with 73% calling for brands to speak up.
And it’s not just the youngsters who want brands to put their values on display: 62% of consumers 55 and older also say it’s at least somewhat important to hear from brands about social and political issues.
But while consumers want to hear from brands, they’re not ready to change their minds: two thirds of the respondents say that brand posts rarely or never shift their views based on brand messages.
What brands can do however is motivate change—by either showcasing their own investments and actions around an issue or by providing avenues for consumers to engage and contribute themselves. In particular, consumers look to brands to do what they themselves cannot do—direct significant financial resources and facilitate the process for others to more easily make contributions of money and effort.
In an America polarized along so many different dimensions—political, economic, geographic and more—it’s little surprise that the issue of brand engagement would also see a polar divide. Among those who identify as liberals, 78% want to see brands take a stand. Conservatives, on the other hand, ring in at only 52%. Liberals are also almost twice as likely as conservatives to see brands as credible when they speak out on social and political issues.
When it comes to settling on which issues to address, the most important consideration is relevance. “Our data shows that relevance is the key factor in establishing brand credibility on a social or political issue,” Caravella told me. Impacts to customers, employees and business operations top the list of credible reasons why a brand should engage in a particular issue. Straying into topics and concerns that don’t have a meaningful connection to the brand leaves it vulnerable to swift and energetic consumer backlash, such as with the disastrous Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad, in which she averts a brewing riot with a can of soda.
With such a broad diversity of opinions and values in society, brands need to deeply understand their customer segments before they engage. It’s not as simple as deciding that social commentary is good: “Brands should ask themselves why speaking up will matter to their customers and use that as a compass to guide their approach,” Caravella said.
There are gains to be had for wading into social/political fray. Sprout’s research shows that among people who agree with the brand’s position, a majority (52%) express greater brand loyalty, 44% express a likelihood to purchase more and 28% say they’ll publicly praise the company.
But, as always, there are no rewards without risk: 53% of those who disagree with a brand’s point of view may purchase less from it, a full third may join a formal #boycott and 20% will be motivated to publicly criticize the brand.
Sprout offers the following advice for companies looking to step into the social/political dialogue:
Align with stakeholders on strategy. Be intentional and build internal consensus on what issues to focus on and how to approach them.
Prepare for every kind of reaction. There’s a good chance some will disagree with your perspectives. Get the team ready for smoothly handling all types of feedback and dissent.
Do what individuals cannot do alone. Use your financial resources and brand platform to build focus and support for your chosen issue, beyond what consumers can do themselves.
Develop a C-suite playbook. Consumers prefer to hear from the CEO, but all executives need to understand the story and know their roles in supporting it.
Empower employees to spread the word. Your internal team can be the best advocates for your brand purpose. Empower them with materials, training and support so they can do their part.
Don’t be lulled into thinking that there’s safety in silence. Every posture brings risk—including sitting on the sidelines. So dig deep, put your values on display and build an even tighter bond with your customers around those shared beliefs. And along the way, you might do some good in a world that surely needs your help.
Peter Horst is the former CMO of Hershey and held top marketing positions at Capital One and Ameritrade. He currently speaks, writes and consults as Founder of CMO Inc., a marketing consultancy.