Majority of Consumers Want Brands to Take a Stand on Social and Political Issues, According to New Study

Sprout Social found around two-thirds of consumers don't want companies to stay silent

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Most consumers want brands to weigh in on social and political issues, according to a new survey by social media management and analytics company Sprout Social entitled “Championing Change in the Age of Social Media.

The Sprout Social study contradicted a study from the 4A’s last May. “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 when the 4A’s released the previous study examining brands tackling social and political issues.

Sprout Social’s study found around two-thirds of consumers responded that it was either “Somewhat Important” or “Very Important” for brands to take a stand on social/political issues, with only 11 percent saying it was “Not at All Important.”

Sprout Social vice president, strategy and brand engagement, Andrew Caravella pointed out that the company’s study was conducted around six months after 4A’s, which was conducted in March 2017. He pointed to differences in methodology but also noticed some similarities in terms of decision-making process, saying, “I think the fact that both studies show a need for and appreciation for thoughtfulness in your approach is really important.”

Consumers were noticeably more receptive to brands communicating social or political messages on social media compared to other platforms. 58 percent of consumers responded that they were receptive to such messages on social media, compared to 47 percent for television or radio and just 25 percent for print advertising.

Caravella said that “the rise, both in terms of volume and general discourse that’s happening on social as a result of political and social issues” is something “we’re seeing very, very quickly elevate,” even since the 2016 presidential election.

“Sometimes saying nothing is okay,” Caravella explained. “What’s interesting about the way social changes that dynamic is the conversations are happening with or without you,” with people sometimes mentioning and referencing brands directly on social media, and as a result, “the reality is staying silent, for some brands and for some instances, is not an option. To say nothing is worse than saying something and re-establishing your values.”

Caravella explained because of the interesting environment of the times, brands must pre-plan and think critically about their messaging. As opposed to the one-directional messaging of traditional platforms, social media allows brands to quickly gauge “what people’s perceptions of you as a result of taking a stand are,” he added.

Interestingly, it’s not just brands that consumers expect to weigh in on political and social issues, but CEOs and other executives as well.

59 percent of respondents in the study said that CEOs should engage with social and political issues, while 52 percent extended that to other executives.

When asked how they want CEOs and executives to share such opinion on social media, the most popular responses were “Share Personal or Brand Event/Charity Participation” (45 percent), followed closely by “Engage in Conversation.”

Not all types of consumers react to brands taking on social and political issues in the same way.

Sprout Social’s study found a wide disparity, for example, in receptiveness to brands tackling such issues between consumers who identify as “Liberal” and those who identify as “Conservative.”

78 percent of liberal consumers in the study said it was either “Somewhat Important” or “Very Important,” compared to just 52 percent of conservatives. 19 percent of conservatives responded that it was “Not at All Important,” compared to just 7 percent of liberals.

Similarly, liberals respondents were far more likely to consider brands’ stances on political and social issues credible. 82 percent of liberal respondents said brands stances on such issues were either “Somewhat Credible” or “Very Credible,” compared to just 46 percent of conservatives. 25 percent of conservative respondents went as far as to call such brand stances “Not at All Credible,” compared to only 3 percent of liberals.

Audience reaction is only part of the consideration in whether a brand should tackle an issue, however.

“The concept of social listening gives you that frame of reference which certainly can inform a decision to potentially go public on an issue,” Caravella explained. “That said, I think you also have to look internally as an organization. .. the framework of who you are and what your values are as a business.”

“I think you’ve got to have a well-rounded conversation with yourselves about not only what the issue is but what the potential impacts could be of talking about it,” he added.

Perceived authenticity is another strong factor in how brands’ messages around political and social issues are received. The factors consumers in the study said most impacted brand credibility on social and political issues were that impacts the brand’s customers (47 percent) or employees (40 percent), while only 19 percent felt there was “No Specific Reason Necessary.”

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.