Long gone are the days when politics are taboo at the office, on first dates and at the dinner table. Today, more and more Americans are defining themselves, and everything else, along partisan lines. That means all of our choices — from the food we eat to the sneakers we wear to the sports we watch — are becoming politicized. What’s more, most Americans expect brands to speak out publicly on political and social issues.
A recent survey our company conducted found that 64% of American participants believe that it is important for their favorite brands to have political stances that align with their own. And they will use their wallets and platforms to support or oppose businesses depending on the stances they take. The research also shows that 44% of Americans would stop doing business with a company altogether and 73% would take some action against the company, including contacting the company directly, speaking out on social media, or telling friends and family to boycott. This trend is most prominent in the Gen Z population and consistent across party lines.
There are no complete wins when businesses get political. Making bold political statements, especially with the unprecedentedly fractured nature of current politics, comes with risks, including alienating some audiences or becoming a target. But when done right, the rewards can also be enormous. Consider the cases of Nike, Patagonia and TOMS.
In an era when consumers are more value-driven than ever before, brands that stay silent on political or social issues that matter to their key audiences are choosing the lose-lose option. They’ll likely miss out on earning stronger loyalties and showing that they stand by their core values.
The public’s new expectations for corporate America’s engagement in society will lead brands to rethink how they market and communicate. Political engagement is poised to be a big way that brands distinguish themselves in customers’ eyes in 2019. But with so much uncertainty about this new terrain, how can brands thoughtfully take a stance on political or social causes that impact their businesses, employees or customers?
First, companies should focus on issues connected to their business and mission. Brands that comment on every hot-button issue in the news cycle run the risk of hurting their brands. At best, they dilute the impact of taking a stand by fatiguing their audiences. At worst, they come across as disingenuous and opportunistic.
Second, brands must honestly take stock of the potential risks and rewards. If brand managers prioritize messages, set parameters and stay within the boundaries, being politically active in selective and strategic conversations can enhance brand loyalty.
Third, companies must prioritize the audiences that matter most to their businesses. Those with a very diverse customer base may be better off taking up a more universally popular social issue, while businesses that serve a narrower subset of the population or that have a clear segment whose support is imperative could safely take a bolder stance on a more partisan issue.
The majority of Americans think there is a place for corporate America to weigh in on politics, and companies overwhelmingly believe they will receive a positive response for doing so. As more companies enter the political arena in 2019, many will be applauded for their bravery in advocating for their values. Some will go too far or too carelessly and fracture their constituencies, and others will attempt to stay neutral and get lost in the shuffle. But across corporate America, a company’s standing will be determined increasingly by what it stands for.