4A’s Survey Finds ‘More Risk Than Benefit’ in Brands Tackling Political and Social Issues

The majority of consumers don't want brands to take a position

Most consumers don't want brands to get political. Getty Images

A new survey by the 4A’s and research partner SSRS found that while brands are more interested in values-based marketing, consumers mostly don’t like it when brands take on political and social issues.

“Consumers are not looking to brands to take a position on political or social issues. In fact, there’s typically more risk than benefit,” 4A’s CMO Alison Fahey said in a statement. “Brands taking a negative approach risk backlash, and only a small percentage of consumers are moved to buy from positive messaging.”

Sixty-seven percent of agency respondents said that they “believe that changing American values are causing brands to become more interested in corporate responsibility and values-based marketing.”

Respondents noted that brands are far less likely to tackle political issues than social ones. Thirty-three percent of respondents answered the question “In my opinion, brands are ____ about/of taking a political stance,” with the word “afraid” (other options included “excited,” “compelled,” “conflicted” and “uninterested), while just 14 percent chose that answer for social issues. Twenty-six percent answered that brands were compelled to take a social stance, while just 7 percent selected that answer for a political stance.

Fifty-seven percent of agency professionals said that “understanding the demographics and values of a brand’s customers is more important than ever” was the most important lesson learned from the 2016 presidential election. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they had “counseled or required that more diverse perspectives were needed in creative or planning” since the election, while 30 percent had advised clients to avoid controversial sociopolitical issues.

A complementary consumer survey conducted in collaboration with research partner SSRS, found that brands may have reason to be trepidatious about taking on political issues. The majority of consumers, 58 percent, responded that they dislike when brands get political.

Fifty-one percent of consumers responded that they thought President Trump’s policies made brands and companies more vocal and inclined to take a political/social stance, with just 9 percent saying it made them less inclined.

As to the president’s direct endorsement of brands via Twitter, consumers responded it largely had no impact on their purchasing decisions.

Seventy-two percent indicated that tweets from the president indicating a positive endorsement, as was the case with L.L.Bean, “do not impact my purchasing decision,’ while 74 percent said the same of negative endorsements. Of those that were swayed by such endorsements, 22 percent said they were less likely to purchase a product following a positive endorsement from Trump, while just 6 percent said they were more likely to purchase a product. Likewise, 17 percent responded they were more likely to purchase a product the president was critical of, while just 9 percent said they were less likely to make such a purchase.

So what will get consumers to avoid brands?

Seventy-two percent of respondents said they were “not at all likely” to purchase a brand they considered racist. Half of respondents said the same of brands deemed “anti-LGBTQ.”

Positive associations didn’t have nearly as big of an impact, however. Only 25 percent of respondents said they were “very likely” to purchase a pro-LGBTQ brand and 21 percent responded in kind for a brand deemed “inclusive.”

“All in all, what this shows us is that for brands looking to align themselves with political or social issues, it’s often tricky if not treacherous terrain,” Fahey told Adweek via email.

Asked what advice she’d give to a brand considering tackling a political or social issue, she responded, “Think twice, and then think again. Ask yourself: ‘Do you have credibility in this space or about this issue? Does the position you want to take align with the core values of your company or brand? Is the messaging authentic?'”

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.