As the 2020 Election Looms, Consumers Look for Brands That Have Political Values

Remaining neutral no longer seems to be the best strategy

a blue elephant on someone
Increasingly, consumers are looking to see where brands stand on hot-button issues. Getty Images
Headshot of Barry Lowenthal

We seem to live in two Americas, separated into a Republican nation and a Democratic nation, each with its own ethics code, values, beliefs, images and media.

We increasingly define ourselves and evaluate our friends and social groups by which side they belong to. In this kind of environment, the key expression of authenticity and identity has become political affiliation. And this movement extends to brands as well.

In previous decades, overall utility and consistency dictated brand identity and loyalty, allowing brands to remain apolitical. But as society’s expectations have evolved, do brands have to become partisan just like the consumers they serve?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes, especially regarding new brands. The only brands that don’t have to pick a side are brands that provide extraordinary utility and those brands are very few. Consumers don’t seem to pay too much attention to a brand that can provide an extraordinary function or service. For everyone else, values and authenticity matter first.

Partisan consumers

Today’s consumers increasingly prioritize brands that share their values and political beliefs. This means that as the 2020 presidential election approaches, brands may be forced to pick a side.

Brands that choose to express no corporate values or political leanings risk subjecting themselves to the criticism and rejection of all belief-driven consumers.

A recent report from the Global Strategy Group found that nearly 80% of consumers think brands should be politically and socially active. The research shows that while Democrats value brands taking a stance more than Republicans, over one-third of all consumers, regardless of political affiliation, are willing to boycott brands they don’t agree with.

In an unprecedented partisan environment, brands face the dilemma of whether or not to align to a political party and alienate consumers from the opposing party. Target, Walmart, Chick-fil-A, the NFL and Dick’s Sporting Goods have all been the subject of partisan boycotts in recent years for taking a divisive political stand.

It seems, however, that the stakes are too high to remain apolitical. Especially in a presidential election year, brands that choose to express no corporate values or political leanings risk subjecting themselves to the criticism and rejection of all belief-driven consumers on both sides of the aisle.

Political brands

More and more consumers want to know what a brand stands for. They want to know that the brands they are using—and thereby endorsing—share their values.

Many younger consumers want to know that the brand is environmentally conscious, does not use child labor and integrates environmentally sound choices into supply chain management. They pass judgement on which charities the CEO supports, what political contributions the company makes and what kinds of healthcare procedures are covered for employees.

For example, 88% of consumers, both Democrats and Republicans, felt Patagonia’s decision to give employees a paid day off to vote on election day was appropriate. Further, roughly 86% of consumers said it informed their favorable opinion of the brand.

Brands that recognize the growing significance of political and social activism and promote their values internally and externally have generally seen a positive response from like-minded consumers.

For example, Target partnered with the Human Rights Campaign and endorsed the Equality Act. Nike saw an increase in sales after its Colin Kaepernick campaign. Hobby Lobby famously took a challenge to the Affordable Care Act all the way to the Supreme Court.

While many of these issues have nothing to do with the utility or quality of a brand’s products, they have everything to do with a brand’s identity, which now also includes which party’s policies they support.

What’s at stake? 

When consumers head to the ballot box to pick the president in 2020, brands may be forced to choose which consumers they’d like for the next four years.

As the presidential campaign becomes more heated, many brands will have to pick a side. This necessity will limit the scale brands are able to achieve. Until the country becomes more unified, many brands will have to settle for only half of the population as a customer base.

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@barrylowenthal Barry Lowenthal is CEO of The Media Kitchen.