Brands should take a stand on divisive issues, say a new Sprout Social study

Potential benefits far outweigh potential drawbacks, making political engagement well worth considering.

Bear's Ear's, Monument Valley Tribal Park, UT. Photo: Flickr/Robb Hannawacker
Bear's Ear's, Monument Valley Tribal Park, UT. Photo: Flickr/Robb Hannawacker

As politics becomes more divisive in the U.S., more and more brands are jumping into the fray with campaigns that either directly or indirectly comment on current affairs. Some, like Patagonia, nailed it. But others, like Pepsi, flopped. The higher-profile the brand, the more prominent their success or failure. It might not seem worth the risk.

But, says a new survey from social media management firm Sprout Social, it absolutely is. A report released this week reveals that a greater percentage of consumers will stay loyal to a brand when they agree with it than will boycott when they disagree. Consumers are expecting it: 66 percent of respondents said they want brands to take a stance on difficult issues, and 58 percent are glad to see it happen on social media.

"The discourse that’s been happening on social in the aftermath of the election is one reason we did this report, but so is the shift in social from being just a marketing tactic to a communication channel," said Andrew Caravella, Sprout Social’s VP of strategy and brand engagement.  "We try to use our data to ask questions around not just what social management means for brands, but also social behavior."

And some of that behavior, Caravella said, surprised him. While Sprout Social was careful not to ask respondents about their political party, they did ask whether respondents were liberal or conservative—and found that, 78 percent to 52 percent, liberals are far more likely than conservatives to expect brands to take a stand.

Overall, 44 percent of consumers said they were more likely to purchase from a brand with a clear opinion, and 52 percent would show greater brand loyalty. As for methodology, the survey polled just over 1,000 consumers online. Most respondents were white (79 percent) and women (66 percent), with a fairly even spread across education level, age and political beliefs. 

Consumers aren’t only interested in hearing from a brand itself. Sprout Social also found they welcome CEOs weighing in on issues from personal social profiles. Although only 16 percent of respondents said a CEO was more influential than a brand, 59 percent said they nonetheless wanted CEOs to speak out. 

This works for almost any CEO, not just ones who, like Elon Musk, have cultivated a high profile beyond their brand association. But there are a few things to take into account first, said Caravella, particularly with CEOs who aren’t as well-known. "Are they comfortable on social, and do they understand it requires continued management? Do these issues make sense to talk about—are they relevant to the people who you engage with? Those are the questions to ask before bringing in that human-to-human component of using your CEO as a voice."

As for what brands should be speaking out on, the survey found that human rights, labor laws and gender equality were the top three topics consumers wanted to hear about from companies. Caravella pointed out that these issues don’t have to relate directly to a brand’s product, so long as they resonate with the people who either work for the company or buy that product. But there does have to be a clear reason for the brand to wade in—otherwise, it might be subject to a call-out, another trend Sprout Social has recently analyzed

In the coming year, Caravella said he’ll be watching closely to see how the data from this study plays out in terms of actual business impact. "Our data is around hypotheticals—what would you do. As this era continues, we’re hoping to get a sense of the bottom line impact, whether a brand has actually seen a decline or a bump in sales." Considering that the political climate doesn’t look like it’ll be cooling soon, there will likely be examples aplenty for Sprout Social and others to mine.

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