How Research Can Mislead Marketers on Brand Activism

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Brand activism is growing in popularity as companies weigh in on a broad swath of societal issues — with varying degrees of success. Consider Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity” campaign (inspired by the #MeToo movement), Audi’s “Daughter” ad (highlighting gender pay inequality), or Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign (intended to promote racial understanding). Each brand presented a point of view about an important issue that has little to do with a shave, cars, or coffee. And yet each of these efforts generated controversy and stirred divisive public reactions among consumers.

Why are brands risking market share and brand image erosion to weigh in on important but hot-button topics on which consumers, shareholders, and employees do not agree? Marketers have been told, “You must take a stand,” in reports, articles, and surveys. But what is driving this belief?

Historically, consumer insight has been derived through research. If it matters to consumers, then it should matter to marketers. There have been several research reports suggesting that consumers want brands to engage. For example, research conducted by Sprout Social found that 66% of consumers want brands to take stands on political and social issues. Edelman found that 64% of consumers make purchasing decisions based on whether a brand represents their beliefs. Barron’s reported that nearly 60% of consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues. In a Cone Communications study, 87% of respondents claimed that they have purchased a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. And in a Porter Novelli study, executives said that companies “must address” sexual harassment (97%), racial equality (93%), women’s rights (89%), domestic job growth (86%), and privacy and security issues (84%). Study after study provides a steady drumbeat reinforcing the requirement that companies engage in and address myriad societal, economic, and cultural issues that transcend the primary way in which companies create value.

With such evidence, it is not surprising that companies are diving into the activism pool. But is this really what consumers want? And is this always good for business? Below, I share three aspects of current research that may be misleading marketers into making risky decisions that could compromise consumer perception, brand health, and market position. I then suggest how to use market research to help make decisions that benefit the consumer and the brand.

1. Most research doesn’t consider the business impact of activism. The results mentioned above send a message that marketers must move quickly to take a stance on important yet often divisive issues. Many of these studies focus on the consumer’s desire for brand activism. Cone Communications’ research, however, looked at more than just the potential positives: Although it found that “Americans expect companies to address divisive issues,” 76% of the consumers surveyed indicated that they would refuse to purchase a product if they discovered that the company producing it supported an issue that didn’t reflect their beliefs. This bears repeating: Three-fourths of consumers said they will stop buying a brand if it supports the “wrong” side of an issue. For marketers, this becomes a simple math exercise. Leaning into divisive issues has a high probability that the people on the other side of the issue will stop buying your product, or worse — organize and influence others to boycott it.

The consequence for companies can be a decline in brand image, negative word of mouth, and, ultimately, risk to sales. Despite the conceptual — and real — damage that some brands experience after making activism missteps (see the Coca-Cola example described below), most of the research is focused on the upside of activism without any commensurate understanding of the downside. This unbalanced perspective, lacking a comprehensive view of the consequences, can mislead marketers.

2. Surveys often fail to consider trade-offs. Many of the surveys found in the business press ask consumers to answer questions that don’t consider trade-offs. This can result in misleading interpretations of the results. The Cone report claims that “consumers expect companies to get involved in many of today’s hot-button matters.” And among Cone’s survey respondents, 87% said that companies have a role to play in racial equity, 84% in women’s rights, 81% in the cost of higher education, 78% in immigration, 76% in climate change, 65% in gun control, and 64% in LGBTQ rights. Conceptually, all of these are very important issues in which companies could invest resources — time, labor, and money — and there are hundreds more that would also yield such consumer sentiment. In fact, there are several nonprofits dedicated to serving these issues. Operationally, what size organization would have to be assembled to tackle these and other important issues? And what are the activities that companies should divert money from to free up resources to support such initiatives?

Companies must make trade-off decisions. They don’t have unlimited resources to address all of the societal, political, environmental, and cultural issues that exist. Most companies sell products and services to generate the profits that allow them to invest in such issues. More helpful research would investigate consumer trade-offs. Consider Coca-Cola’s recent communication controversy when it waded into the debate over a voting law in the state of Georgia, where the company’s headquarters is located. Over the course of making different public statements, Coca-Cola managed to anger liberals first and then conservatives. The rotating boycotts — from one party to the next — indicate significant disagreement, however, regarding which side consumers would want Coca-Cola to align with, reflecting the country’s own political divide.

Further, if the same consumers were asked how Coca-Cola should prioritize different efforts, the company could then get a more accurate sense of the issue’s relative importance in a resource-constrained context. With bounded time and resources, is Coca-Cola better serving consumers by weighing in on the Georgia voting law or by addressing significant health issues in society, such as childhood obesity, or any number of other issues that are important to Coca-Cola’s consumers? Interestingly, as Coca-Cola has increased its engagement on such divisive issues, its corporate reputation ranking by U.S. consumers has dropped 27 spots (from 31st to 58th) since 2019, while PepsiCo has moved up from the 50th position to the 20th.

Surveys that ask only whether companies should get involved in a litany of issues can mislead executives, because companies operate within a constrained resource environment. They can’t expend resources against all important problems. Allocating resources to such issues requires that they de-prioritize other issues — including working on core business-related aspects. This real-world trade-off is not considered in much of the managerial research being conducted, preventing business leaders from understanding how consumers would prioritize a company’s investments in a resource-constrained context.

3. Consumers tell you what they think you want to hear. A common survey methodology problem is social desirability bias — respondents’ tendency to answer in a way that is likely to be perceived as favorable by others. I, unfortunately, was unaware of this issue when I arrived at a business after it had experienced a failed product launch. In a survey conducted before the launch, consumers overwhelmingly said that they wanted the company to offer a recycled product. The team subsequently launched a recycled product, but actual purchases were nowhere near the projections. There are myriad reasons why product launches can fail, but the key here is that the nature of a question can exert pressure on consumers to respond in a certain way that belies their actual beliefs or behavior.

If you ask consumers whether a company or a person should care about the environment, gender pay inequality, racial injustice, human rights violations, voting rights, gun control, abortion rights, and so forth, most people have been acculturated to believe that these are important issues and will say “yes.” However, everyone may prioritize these issues differently, relative to other expectations that they might have for a company, such as those directly related to the product/service being marketed, and act accordingly.

How to Avoid Being Misled

Marketers must start by critically assessing the survey they’re referencing. Does it look like the authors have a narrative they are trying to sell? Critically review the questions. Are they objective? Can you easily predict the outcome without looking at the results? Is there a “right” answer to the questions? If there is a societally constructed correct answer, then there is the potential for inflated results. There are statistical approaches that can help address this, such as a conjoint, or trade-off, method of analysis.

Second, do the results reflect reality? Given that businesses must make choices regarding resource allocation, is there any insight on such prioritization? If not, marketers themselves need to be doing this research. Also, it’s important to understand that general population research may not be relevant for understanding a particular company’s consumers. Do not use general population managerial research if it isn’t representative of your consumer base. For example, a number of surveys were conducted in Georgia regarding Coca-Cola’s involvement in the voting law. If a business operated only on the West Coast of the U.S., it would not make sense to use insights from a Georgia voting survey as representative of its own population of consumers. While the Georgia example is obvious, it’s important to remember that most of the managerial surveys conducted are national in scope and may not reflect a particular brand’s consumer base.

Third, marketers should conduct more research to understand the consequences of divisive actions. This becomes even more important if the marketing team lacks ideological diversity, which can be a critical blind spot for companies. To address this, a simple research check before engaging in controversial action to ensure that your specific company’s customers won’t defect or call for a boycott would be prudent. Or, if the position is critical from a values and purpose perspective, conduct research to understand the possible consumer, brand, and business impact. Make projections on the potential negative effect that consumer defection can have on the business and what actions might be required (such as cost cutting) to address potential revenue and profit and loss projections. At a minimum, project the fallout to ensure that the company is comfortable with the possible consequences.

What this all means is “buyer beware.” Marketers should be careful about the research being used to guide their company’s business decisions. It can very well lead marketers and brands astray. However, understanding the consequences of following such research and investigating it to ensure that it is yielding high-quality — and not misleading — insights is a good starting point.

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