What are we, as brand stewards, supposed to do when faced with the tension between trying to align ourselves with social or political causes on one hand and a navigating a deeply divided-- and at times outright hostile-- public? Some tell us we are supposed to embrace controversial and divisive positions on social or political issues. But there's more to this story.
My company recently completed its Culture & Technology Intersection 2019-2020 study, and the data gives us a deeper perspective on this issue. The study, now in its fourth year, surveyed 1,500 U.S. adults, 18 years and older, and explores the impact of technology on culture. Interestingly, by asking respondents to self-identify themselves on the political spectrum, the study has uncovered that in this politically polarized age, political orientation may be a bigger determinant of attitudes than even generational splits.
How polarized are we? As the study shows, ask a conservative if "all liberals are evil" and one out of three agree, with 16 percent agreeing strongly. The same goes for liberals believing "all conservatives are evil," with one out of four agreeing, 12 percent agreeing strongly. What's more important is that "all conservatives" represent 38 percent of the public, with "all liberals" representing 27 percent. In other words, we're not a nation comprised of half conservatives and half liberals, with each at each others' throats. The fringe on the edges is actually fairly small.
On top of this, the study shows there's a third group in the middle of all this that is oddly independent of the noise, called "moderates," who account for 36 percent of the U.S. adult population-- and they don't really think anyone is evil.
When we reflect back on the collapse of support for brands that take polarizing positions on controversial political or social issues, as I wrote about before, we start to understand what drives this shift: moderates have thrown up their hands at this and have gone on with their lives.
Conservatives tell us that they have increased support for brands that have made statements that align with their politics from 30 percent in 2018 to 34 percent in 2019. On the other hand, liberals have dropped a few percentage points year over year, registering 41 percent in 2018 and declining to 39 percent in 2019.
As for boycotts, conservatives saying they've avoided supporting brands that have taken stances against their values declined from 50 percent in 2018 to 41 percent in 2019, while liberals-- similar to their support metrics-- have held roughly steady, declining a point to 51 percent in 2019 from 52 percent in 2018.
Moderates have dropped in both categories, decreased their support for aligned brands from 22 percent in 2018 to 17 percent in 2019, and showing less support for brand boycotts, declining to 26 percent in 2019 from 2018's 33 percent.
So, if you're planning on catering to the far left, understand you're really talking to 39 percent of the 26 percent-- or 10 percent of the American adult population. Likewise, if you're counting on the far right to embrace you, understand you're talking to a total of 13 percent of the American public. The rest of America, for the most part, isn't listening.
That said, how are we supposed to walk this fine line of brand stewardship on one hand and brand values alignment on the other? Here are three observations I have:
If you insist on catering to a political or social issue, know why you're doing it, and do it on purpose.
If your brand DNA is unarguably, incontrovertibly linked to an idea bigger than your narrowly defined product category, then go forth with confidence, knowing your audience feels the same way you do. Just don't do it by accident or because you're catering to a cultural moment.
Be careful of your ego, because it will lead you and your brand astray.
Just because you, personally, have a strong opinion about a social or political issue doesn't mean you have to force it upon your brand.
Sure, there's a certain gravitational pull to connect to something bigger than your brand as we're living in an age where it feels like everything is now political. The Business Roundtable statement on the purpose of the enterprise tells us that we must serve more stakeholders than we've acknowledged in years past, but if your ego leads you to make decisions that cost your brand money, you won't last long in your job.
Ask if there is a real need to focus on a social or political issue at all.
If you feel strongly about connecting your brand to a bigger idea, is there a reason you can't elevate the discussion and unite people instead of divide them?
In short, it's worth remembering that loud voices tend to take up more airtime and attention than the rest of America. But it's important to note that if you choose to go down this path, you should only do so on purpose-- and not by accident.
You don't always need to make enemies in order to make friends.