Consumers expect brands to take a stance on key issues
KNOWLEDGE @ KRISTIANIA: Sustainability
During the 2017 Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch (the makers of Budweiser) ran an advertisement about the German immigrant founders of the company.
On one reading this was the American Dream written large—and indeed the end caption was ‘When nothing stops your dream.’ On another, it was a pro-immigration message as Adolphus Busch arrives in the US to be confronted with, ‘You’re not wanted here. Go back home’.
- Read also: Kunnskap Kristiania, the Innovation Issue (E-magazine)
A sociopolitical choice of beer
In the supercharged immigration rhetoric of the time, the advertisement was attacked and applauded along partisan lines. It made drinking Budweiser beer a sociopolitical choice. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
As societies have become more politically polarized and trust in political systems has eroded, so consumers have become more aware of the way their choices can influence the world around them. They now have the opportunity, amplified through social media, both to construct their own sense of identity through what they consume and to influence the opinions of others.
To explore this phenomenon, we established a research project to explore the way consumers and brands were adapting to this new reality.
Consumers want authenticity
Using focus groups and a series of experiments in Germany, UK and USA, our research shows that consumers increasingly expect brands to adopt positions on key issues. They argue that this helps to create a point of difference and makes them feel closer to a brand. However, there is an important caveat here. Taking a stance is only credible when it is seen as authentic. This means that the brand has to match communication and action and to be consistent over time.
Consumers only use brands in their own identity projects when they feel the overall brand experience is positive, in terms of the quality delivered, and the sociopolitical brand associations are aligned with the core of the business.
The existing research diverges on whether authenticity is more credible for principle-driven brands such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s versus more consumers driven brands such as Nike and Pepsi-Cola.
However, our findings show that cause and commercialism can comfortably co-exist, as long as the former is not compromised by the latter, as the following quotes demonstrate:
- ‘I would say it’s fine for a brand to have a point of view … but only if it’s something that they truly believe in and they’re not just trying to jump on something that’s current and that everybody else feels strongly about … something that’s not core to themselves’ (UK).
- ‘No matter which direction you go, as a brand you should consistently stand behind it’ (Germany).
- ‘A brand like Ben & Jerry’s has always been outspoken, this is who they are, what they’re all about. The problem is when a brand like Pepsi tries to be woke by trivializing something as important as Black Lives Matter. Not only was this poorly executed, but it wasn’t authentic’ (U.S.).
- Read also: How enterprises can create meaningful purpose together with their stakeholders
The opportunity and dangers for business
In addition to the consumer research, we also had input from 34 senior marketing and brand managers. The literature argues that most businesses opt for comfortable issues and avoid highly politicized issues because they have the potential to alienate customers. However, this caution may be changing, as some brands are willing to support more contentious issues such as pro-choice (Yelp, H&M, Lush), LGBTQ (Burger King, Honey Maid, IKEA) and pro-immigration causes (Starbucks, Levi Strauss, Chobani, Edeka).
This both reflects a shift of these causes into the mainstream and the willingness of business to fill a sociopolitical space, led by more activist Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). Our findings show that managers believe that taking a stance can help differentiate a brand, attract new customers, build emotional and self-expressive benefits, boost brand image, and generate customer loyalty. Managers recognize that their stakeholders want them to have a view and to express it:
- ‘Brands are much more conscious of their consumers being better educated, more environmentally aware and concerned about moral and political issues that affect life now, and in the future’ (Director of Brand Management, U.K.).
- ‘Consumers are increasingly demanding from their brands. Not only do they expect brands to meet their functional and emotional needs, but they expect the brands to have a purpose and stand for something’ (Senior Marketing Director, U.S.).
- ‘Not saying anything says a lot about who you are as a brand. Consumers expect brands to have values and be clear about them. At the same time issues that weren’t political in the past have been politicized, making it more complicated for brands to simply do what’s right without appearing to take political sides’ (Senior Director of Marketing, USA).
What should managers do?
However, even if managers sense the opportunity, 20 out of 34 organizations had not taken a stance on an issue. The primary reason given to not adopt an explicit sociopolitical orientation was that it did not match the organization’s values and beliefs or did not align with the profile of the organization’s core target audience. Many managers perceive the risks involved are too high – that you can get stuck supporting a cause which is divisive.
Our view is that managers cannot not take a stance. Actions are increasingly seen within a political context and consumers and other stakeholders increasingly expect brands to take a lead on sociopolitical issues. Instead of veering away, managers should be aware that associating with such issues is valuable when approached strategically and integrated into the core of the brand.
Schmidt, Holger J, Nicholas Ind, Francisco Guzmán and Eric Kennedy (2021): ‘Sociopolitical Activist Brands’. The Journal of Product & Brand Management.
This article is first published in Kunnskap Kristiania, The Innovation Issue (link to E-magazine) released on August 19, 2021.
Text: Professor Nicholas Ind, School of Economics, Innovation and Technology
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