Study: Brands Play Politics at Their Own Risk


Last week, we covered a study performed by the Global Strategy Group which found that Americans want their consumer brands to be MORE openly political.

You’re not alone in finding these conclusions surprising: we are not exactly a country defined by political consensus at the moment, and many brands looking to appeal to as many Americans as possible would rather stay out of the game entirely. (For example, you may notice that Chick-Fil-A’s current leadership has far more interest in discussing customer engagement and marketing strategies than same-sex marriage.)

A new research paper funded by the Arthur W. Page Center and published in the November issue of Public Relations Journal seems, in part, to contradict GSG’s findings. Americans may want their brands to take stands on social/policy issues, but the act of playing politics also carries significant risks.

As co-author and assistant professor of PR/advertising at University of Central Florida Melissa D. Dodd puts it, “there are financial repercussions.”

Researchers Dodd and Dustin W. Supa of Boston University surveyed 519 random Americans and measured their perceptions regarding a series of brands both before and after learning of their political stance on a given “issue.” The subjects at hand were some of the most divisive in the country at the moment:

  • 1) Same-sex marriage
  • 2) Federal health care reform, aka The Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”
  • 3) Emergency contraception, or “Plan B”

Since researchers recorded participants’ own stances on issues before exposing them to advocacy statements made by the leaders of the companies involved in the survey, they were able to estimate that 80 percent of the change in a subject’s intent to do business with a brand could be attributed to the whether or not the subject agreed with the executive’s stance on that topic.

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For example, subjects who do not personally support same-sex marriage rights were less likely to spend money at Starbucks both before and after participating in survey — and exposure to a statement by CEO Howard Schultz voicing his support for the same-sex marriage movement made such consumers less likely to visit Starbucks in the future.

The opposite also held true.

This isn’t a terribly surprising conclusion: people want to shop at businesses with which they agree politically, and the CEOs involved in the survey have, through their own statements and actions, assigned political positions to the companies they lead.

It feels like a Catch 22: Americans would rather their brands stand for something than avoid hot topics altogether, but companies risk losing certain segments of the public if they make politically contentious statements.

Last week, Global Strategy Group EVP/MD Tanya Meck said:

“…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.”

So a business must prepare for some degree of blowback and pick its political battles carefully. But when do such “positions” become liabilities?

The ability to answer that question is one of PR’s key differentiators on the CSR front.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.