The Voter Perspective on Brand Political Engagement
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The expectation of American consumers is changing. Not only with regard to trends like plant-based or organic, but also how brands should behave. In the wake of the death of George Floyd, Consumer Brands polling showed that 68% of Americans surveyed said they wanted brands to engage on social issues.
But there is a clear distinction in the minds of consumers about social issues and political interests. In a survey of 1,500 registered voters conducted by Echelon Insights, Consumer Brands discovered that companies have more guardrails and expose themselves to more risk when it comes to political engagement.
“The broader view is that while brands should engage on social causes, speaking out on politics specifically is fraught.”
When buying everyday staples, consumers are much more likely to take into consideration product attributes — all-natural ingredients, environmental impact, etc. — than they are a brand’s stance on social or political issues.
But is the landscape shifting? Consumer Brands spoke with Echelon co-founder Kristen Soltis Anderson to get her thoughts on the survey results and how (and if) brands should engage in today’s political environment. “The broader view is that while brands should engage on social causes, speaking out on politics specifically is fraught,” Anderson shared. “Nearly half of all consumers are not necessarily actively seeking out political engagement from brands but are willing to punish or avoid brands that they feel have taken political action that they don’t like.”
Anderson added, “About a third of all consumers say they don’t necessarily care about political engagement. When they are looking to buy products, they are not at all focused on anything about the politics of the brands they are choosing between.”
2020 is Still in Listening Mode
If brands want to use their voice for political change, the audience is young and left — but the pitfalls should give them pause.
Should CPG brands use their voice to advocate for political issues?
The majority of American voters do not see a role for brands in politics. Fifty-one percent said they were not that likely or not at all likely to take a brand’s stance on political issues into consideration when deciding what products to buy. Still, nearly four-in-ten (38%) said they were somewhat or very likely to take a brand’s political stances into consideration.
Looking at the issue another way, 49% of voters said that brands that make CPG products should avoid advocating for political change; 22% said they should use their voice; 29% were unsure. But is the minority poised to grow? The nearly three-in-ten voters who were unsure about brands using their voice could move into the decided camps based on the specific issue or a change in political climate.
The picture shifts, however, when looking at two key demographics: voters’ political party affiliation and age. Thirty-six percent of Democrats say brands should use their voice to advocate for political change, slightly more than the 35% who feel it should be avoided. Republicans, however, feel markedly different. Only 10% believe brands should use their voice for political change; 69% think they shouldn’t.
Younger voters under 50 are not quite as impassioned as Democrats, but more likely than average to say brands should use their voice for political change. Thirty-one percent want brands to use their voice; 41% say it should be avoided. Only 14% of voters older than 50 want to see brands advocating for political change; 57% do not.
Should CPG product brands advocate for political change?
- Under 50
The greater expectation from younger voters for brands to use their voice politically and, looking back, the 38% of voters who said they would consider a brand’s political stance when purchasing CPG products shows a minority, but one that could be poised to grow.
“Brands should not be afraid to embrace the values they hold important,” Anderson said. “Younger consumers have more of an expectation of this from the brands they shop, as the line between their political identity and their identity as a consumer is more blurred.”
However, Anderson made clear that most consumers are not making their decisions that way. “There are risks with being outspoken or engaging in expressly political activity, because for most consumers that is not what they are looking for when they are shopping.”
Politics Doesn’t Drive Purchasing — For Now
Most consumers aren’t choosing their cereal or shampoo based on brand politics, but as more tools emerge to heighten political awareness, consumers may change.
Fewer than three-in-ten (27%) voters say they have stopped buying products because they do not support the brand’s political stance. Following a similar theme discussed above, party affiliation and age drives this number up to 37% for democrats under 50. However, regardless of age or party, American voters are more likely to be punitive than supportive — only 15% said they had bought a product because of a brand’s political stance.
“Consumers are making decisions about products on price, quality and value, and few want to go out of their way to purchase products they might not have otherwise just to make a political statement,” Anderson shared. “The good things brands can do, like ensure proper treatment for workers, equal pay and so on are expectations consumers have — it is not behavior to reward so much as to expect.”
- Under 50
- Say They Often Research Everyday Products
- Say They Do Not Research Everyday Products
Most American voters (73%) would prefer to buy from brands who act responsibly and ethically but admit they do not do in-depth research when making decisions about everyday products. Only 13% say they often do in-depth research.
But there are more watchdogs out there that could raise the political temperature. A new wealth of data is available and being reviewed by a host of organizations dedicated to the analysis of money in politics. Well-known groups like Open Secrets or the Center for Political Accountability offer tracking of corporate political giving, as do startups looking at contributions in a new way. Goods Unite Us is focused on the political money given by companies that make consumers’ everyday purchases. O the Oprah Magazine said, “The tool gives new meaning to the idea of voting with your wallet.”
“If a brand makes a misstep or engages in actions that run counter to a consumer’s values, there may be comparable alternatives that consumer can easily reach for,” said Anderson. “They are not looking to make a political statement when they buy everyday products, but if it is easy for them to avoid feeling like they’re betraying their values, they’re willing to make a different choice.”
Staying in the Business Lane of Politics
Engage where it’s meaningful and logical to the brand, not purely because an issue is societally important.
Taking action on political issues is something that 42% of voters say brands should never do. The intensity against engagement here is significant, but slightly lower than the 49% who feel brands should avoid using their platforms to advocate for political change. The discrepancy can be attributed to the specificity of issues versus general change — and there are some issues where voters feel brands have a relevant role to play.
How often do you think brands should take action on political issues important to Americans?
- On Certain Issues
A majority of consumers felt that they would be somewhat more likely or much more likely to support brands that took action in a few key areas:
- 61% for brands that donated money to small businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19.
- 58% for brands that commit to paying men and women equally.
- 57% for brands that donate to small business negatively affected by protest activity.
- 52% for brands who change products or practices to be more environmentally sustainable.
The options that gained majority support were either timely, in the case of COVID-19 and protests, or issues that could be controlled by the company that are also political in nature. The latter is more telling of how American voters consider brand involvement.
“Regardless of who wins, the effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come, and consumers want to see brands are hand-in-hand with all of us trying to overcome the challenges the pandemic has presented.”
“In times of this pandemic and widespread economic hardship, people are especially focused on wanting to know brands are doing right by their employees — fair pay, good working conditions, and honesty in business practices matter a great deal,” shared Anderson. “Regardless of who wins, the effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come, and consumers want to see brands are hand-in-hand with all of us trying to overcome the challenges the pandemic has presented.”
On the other side, voters were more likely to punish brands that do not treat their workers well. Seventy-one percent of voters said they were somewhat less likely or much less likely to support companies that mistreat the American workers who make their products; 67% said the same about mistreating overseas workers.
By all accounts, CPG companies have gone above and beyond for their employees, particularly in response to COVID-19. Given the intensity of sentiment around worker mistreatment, the inverse of treating employees well is likely to have a positive impact on consumers. Consumer Brands COVID-19 polling found that increasing trust in the industry was primarily driven by continuing to deliver essentials and treating its workforce fairly.
How Can Brands Look at Consumer Segments?
In order to better measure different types of consumers, Echelon Insights developed audience personas that give insights into groups of similar characteristics and dispositions. These segments can help guide their understanding of how consumers will receive and react to brands’ political engagement.
Conscious consumers are the most responsive consumers but make up the smallest segment. A strong majority of this group would be more likely to support brands which actively get involved with political issues, including changing internal policies to increase diversity and inclusion among their employees or donating money to organizations which support racial equality, both of which moved less than half of the total sample.
Most American voters are reactive consumers. Two-thirds say they’re not likely to take a brand’s stance on political issues into consideration when buying, or are unsure if they will, but 44% have taken action in response to brands’ stances. Reactive consumers are the most likely to pull their support from brands who mistreat workers. Just over half (54%) of reactive consumers also say they would be less likely to support brands that donate to movements or causes they disagree with.
Casual consumers are the least likely to respond to brand activism. Strong majorities say they are unlikely to take brands’ stances into consideration when buying and have never acted in response to brand activism. Less than one-third would be more likely to support brands that engage in any kind of activism. Fifty-two percent say they would be less likely to support brands that mistreat American workers, but less than half would be less likely to support brands that engaged in any other potentially objectionable behavior.
Want more insights on how the election will shape the political future for brands?
Join us for “Issues Watch: Forecasting the Political Landscape” on November 18-19. We’ll be joined by Kristen Soltis Anderson for a keynote on how the election results will affect CPG brand perception when the new government takes office in 2021.
Published on October 29, 2020
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