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Fueled by consumer trust, brands seek out a higher purpose

By Jamie Gilpin / November 5, 2019

It’s interesting to think about how brand loyalty has changed since the 2016 election.

While price and quality still matter to consumers, factors like a brand’s political affiliation and social values are more important than ever before. Today’s shoppers want to know what their favorite brands stand for and may find themselves disappointed when a business’ beliefs don’t align with their own.

According to Sprout Social’s most recent Brands Get Real report, 70% of consumers believe it’s important that brands take a stand on social and political issues. And in today’s crowded marketplace, brands are beginning to view having an opinion on hot button issues as a differentiating factor, and one that directly impacts consumer loyalty.

But beyond the transactional relationship, voicing support for specific issues also gives brands a chance to stand for something bigger than their business. Of the consumers who want brands to take a stand, 66% say they believe brands can create real change when they voice their beliefs. In other words, consumers aren’t just waiting for midterms and presidential elections to influence the issues that matter most to them. They’re investing in the brands they believe can help accelerate change and start to address some of the nation’s most pressing problems.

We’ve already established brands have more to lose than gain in remaining silent on important political issues. As brands increasingly take stands and promote their values to consumers, the question becomes what brands will do next with the attention they’ve cultivated.

When brands speak, people listen

It’s been over a year since the Nike Colin Kaepernick ad debuted, yet it remains one of the most talked about commercials on social media and continues to spark conversations on race relations and equity. Likewise, when I think of which brands have taken steps to address gun control, I automatically think of Dick’s Sporting Goods and, more recently, Walmart.

Consumers are hyper-aware of everything brands say and do, and aren’t afraid to voice their displeasure with businesses in the form of boycotts and protests.

Consider how quickly consumers joined together to boycott Starbucks after two black men were racially discriminated against at a Philadelphia location. Likewise, Chick-fil-A was recently met with protests by British LGBTQ activists who opposed the fast-food chain’s support of groups that are hostile to gay rights.

Wading into any discussion about political or social issues naturally comes with a degree of risk. Plenty of brands have found themselves on the receiving end of consumer backlash because of their beliefs, and for some businesses this is enough to deter them from speaking up. But when done right, the benefit of taking a stand far outweighs the risk of angering a handful of customers. When their personal beliefs align with a brand’s stance, 36% of consumers say they’ll purchase more from that company.

Not all stands are created equal

The path to taking a stand varies from business to business, and how brands determine which stand they take inevitably influences their credibility in the public eye.

How some people perceive brands taking a stand, for example, is a concern. Fifty-three percent of consumers believe brands take a stand for PR or marketing purposes and 39% of consumers don’t think brands are credible when they speak up.

The chocolate brand Cadbury came under scrutiny when it released a “Unity Bar” meant to celebrate diversity in India. While one can argue the decision to even acknowledge diversity should be applauded, how Cadbury executed its strategy inspired more skepticism than support. People took to Twitter to question how a bar of chocolate was supposed to promote diversity and inclusion and viewed the candy bar as little more than a capitalist stunt.

On the other hand, some brands are forced into taking a stand in response to external factors out of their control. Consider what’s happening with the NBA and China. What began as a Tweet from Rockets owner Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong protestors quickly turned into an international scandal. Caught in between two angry fanbases, NBA commissioner Adam Silver ultimately came out in support of Morey and his statement. And while it did little to appease Chinese fans, it was a reminder that some brands take stands to minimize long-term reputational damage.

Making brand stances count

As brands take to social media to express their beliefs, they need to look to consumers to inform what makes their stance credible and impactful.

In the latest Brands Get Real survey, 29% of consumers say a stand is believable when brands focus on issues that directly affect their employees. Consider how Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, was able to successfully push back on North Carolina’s “bathroom law” because the bill directly impacted his employees. Likewise, consumers are also receptive to brands speaking out on issues that directly impact customers, such as climate change. Allbirds announced its carbon offset program on Earth Day and gave workers the day off to participate in the recent climate strike.

As for how brands should express their beliefs on social media, 38% of consumers say the best way is for brands to create advertisements about their stance. Penzeys Spices, an independent spice retailer, spends thousands of dollars on pro-impeachment advertising on Facebook, second only to President Trump’s campaign spend on anti-impeachment ads. For owner Bill Penzey Jr., who has a history of liberal activism, taking an aggressive stance on politics has more than made up for the handful of disgruntled customers he lost. He estimates his message, which strongly resonates with the Millennial crowd, accounted for over a quarter million dollars in sales since the impeachment ads went live.

Part of building an authentic stance is recognizing that brands don’t have to weigh in on every public issue, just the ones that matter most to the people you hire and the consumers you serve. Identifying one issue that everyone, from your frontline workers all the way up to the C-suite, can get behind is more impactful than trying to generate a stance on every public issue.

Corporate activism is here to stay

Is it idealistic to suggest that brands can change the world where politicians have largely failed? Perhaps. But the people have spoken, and their trust largely resides not in the governing bodies we vote for but in the businesses we buy from.

The research from our latest Brands Get Real report only confirms this sentiment: that brands taking stands is important to consumers and they believe brands can create real change. Consumers have put their faith in brands to move the needle on the issues that matter most to society—now it’s on brands to make those expectations a reality.

Jamie Gilpin

Jamie Gilpin

Jamie Gilpin is the CMO at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketing leader with demonstrated success in growing brands in the technology space through strategic positioning.
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