STUDY: The Public Wants Its Brands to Get More Political

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Is Nike a Republican or a Democratic brand? What about Apple?

Given the headaches and ruined family dinners inspired by this week’s midterm elections — along with the general sense that Americans have had it with ugly party politics — this post’s headline may come as a surprise.

Yet a study released by the Global Strategy Group found that Americans do assign political identities to brands, and that the general public wants those brands to be more overtly political, whether that means Chick-Fil-A letting the world know how it feels about same-sex marriage or Chipotle asking gun owners not to bring their firearms inside.

Some key findings:

  • 56 percent of respondents think corporations should “take a stance” on political/cultural issues, even when they’re controversial
  • 89 percent believe that corporations have the power to influence social change
  • 80 percent think that these corporations should take action to address our society’s most pressing challenges

The most interesting part is that these numbers mark a big change from last year, when researchers asked the same questions. We spoke to Tanya Meck, Executive Vice President and Managing Director at GSG, to learn more.

How do we define “taking a stand” versus simply making a corporate statement?

For purposes of our study “taking a stand” was defined by either a corporate statement (including press releases) and/or public statements by a CEO. For example, here are two stances we presented respondents from Chipotle and Starbucks:

After gun rights advocates brought assault rifles into one of its Texas chains, Chipotle released a statement asking customers not to bring firearms into its restaurants, citing the creation of “an environment that is potentially intimidating or uncomfortable for many of our customers.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has publicly stated that he supports President Obama’s efforts to raise the minimum wage. Specifically Schultz stated, “I do think there … is a larger gap between the haves and have-nots in America.”

How can we determine how risky a given stand will turn out to be?

There’s always some level of risk involved when a company takes a stance on a political or social issue, but it’s a calculated risk.

As our survey shows, it’s important to do research to understand your audience, know where they stand on the issue, and wherever possible, tie your stance to your business goals or operations.

Where does one draw the line? We believe that a brand would not receive a positive response for directly supporting a candidate or party.

You’re right, there’s a fine line and this is it. Our study found that the American public is much less supportive of a company aligning itself with a particular candidate than they are with a political issue. For example, when asked how appropriate it is for a company to have the CEO speak and endorse a political candidate on behalf of the company – 35% of respondents said that was an appropriate action and 65% said it was inappropriate.

Why do you think the survey findings changed so much since last year?

Our best guess is that the shift may be due to the survey being conducted during a high political season – the 2014 midterm elections. The American public, now more than ever, may be looking outside of D.C. and our political system for change — and now looking to corporations to take action.

What’s the difference between “taking a position” and “taking action” — and how much do opinions differ on the two?

Our survey found that Americans feel it is more appropriate for a company to “take action” than for a company to “take a position,” and that companies that take action see a greater benefit to their public image than companies that only take a position.

Here’s an example:

The CEOs of McDonald’s and Starbucks took a position in favor of a higher minimum wage, while Walt Disney took action by raising starting pay at its theme parks in Florida to $10 an hour. More than nine in ten adults see Walt Disney’s action as appropriate (91%). On the other hand, only 77% of the public feels the positions taken by Starbucks and McDonald’s are appropriate.

[Ed. note: one of the most interesting parts of the project was this graphic illustrating the perceived political affiliation of various major brands. That’s Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp at the bottom.]

political graphic

Does every company need to accept that political positions will often inspire backlash?

Yes, when a company decides to take a stance on a political or social issue, there will always be some people that don’t agree. But, our survey shows that the best way to take a position on an issue and gain approval from the American public is to tie your stance to your core business, and better yet follow through on your words with action.

How directly must a given “issue” apply to the company itself before the company is expected to have an open stance?

It is unclear where exactly that threshold lies. What is clear is that the closer the issue is tied to your core business, the more support you’ll gain from the public. The burden is on the company to clearly explain the connection between the stance and the business to the target audience in ways that can be easily understood and appreciated.

What can we take from the “corporate political identity” findings other than the fact that people see party politics everywhere?

What’s interesting is that people assigned political identities even before we tested the stances and messaging. Corporations are increasingly viewed as having personalities, political identity included. Whether it’s intended or not, the key takeaway here is that perception matters in the way people view a company and its brand.