We are seeing it now more than ever- brands using their platforms and influence to take a stand on hot-button social issues. With this pattern becoming more and more prevalent, consumers are forced to face the fact that their values may not align with those of the companies they support financially. And when they do, consumers may not approve of the way those values are addressed (or not addressed).
As a company with strong values of our own, the team at GroupSolver was curious to discover opinions on brand activism. Specifically, whether the publicly displayed values of a brand, or lack thereof, have the power to change purchasing habits and overall opinions towards a company. So, we ran a study that asked 200 respondents just that. Here is what we found.
Respondents are passionate about healthcare inaccessibility, gun violence, and/or poverty and food insecurity among other social issues
Social issues are a seemingly unavoidable topic of conversation in today’s world- especially with the large amount of news coverage and social media we are exposed to everyday. So, the question is: How much do people actually care about these issues? When asked how strongly they feel about social issues impacting the world today, 40% of respondents shared they “feel strongly […]” and 44% “feel strongly about some […], and somewhat strongly about others”.
To gain more perspective on which social issues are top-of-mind for respondents, we asked them to specify which one(s) resonate with them most. Around 40%-50% of respondents identified “Climate change” (43%), “Civil rights & racial discrimination” (41%), “Healthcare inaccessibility” (42%), “Gun violence” (42%), and/or “Poverty & food insecurity” (50%) as being issue(s) that they are most passionate about. With consumers’ concern surrounding these serious social issues, many companies have recently prioritized their corporate social responsibility. But what do consumers think about companies stepping into these often-controversial conversations?
Most respondents believe that companies have the ability to make positive social changes
When working towards solving these social issues, a common mentality is that it’s an “all hands-on deck” situation— which includes not only consumers individually taking a stand, but companies as well.
So, do consumers believe a company can create social change? When asked how much they agree with the statement “I believe companies have the ability to make positive social changes”, 83% of respondents indicated that they at least “somewhat agree” (50% “strongly agree”, 33% “somewhat agree”).
Respondents elaborated, saying that companies can do this by “Setting positive examples” (96% support strength), “Doing what is right for the planet” (95% support strength), and “Giving back to the community in which they operate as well as throughout their supply chain” (95% support strength). Additional suggestions from respondents on how companies can enact social change can be seen in the IdeaCloud™ below.
In what way(s) do you think companies can most effectively contribute to positive social change?
More than half of respondents believe that companies should be utilizing their platform to speak out on social issues
It is clear that the majority of our respondents believe it is within the capabilities of a company to make social change, but do they believe it’s their place? When we asked them how much they agree with the statement “I believe that companies have a responsibility to speak out on social issues”, we found that 58% of respondents at least somewhat agree (27% strongly agree, 31% somewhat agree), 25% are neutral, and 16% at least somewhat disagree (8% somewhat disagree, 8% strongly disagree).
Those who believe companies have a responsibility to take a stand gave reasons such as “They have a reach that most people do not have” (95% support strength), and “A company can sway millions while one person can only reach a crowd” (94% support strength). From these answers, it appears that many respondents recognize the influence that these companies have and believe that since they are able to reach a greater group, that makes them responsible for utilizing that platform to make positive change. Additional reasons for why respondents believe that companies have a responsibility to speak out on social issues can be seen in the IdeaCloud™ below.
Why do you believe companies have a responsibility to speak out on social issues?
Some consumers believe that companies should “stick to business” rather than getting involved in social matters
Although most users think that companies have a certain level of responsibility to address social issues, there are still 16% who believe that it is out of line. Those who believe that companies are not socially responsible elaborated on their opinions saying, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion” (92% support strength), “Stick to business” (91% support strength), and “Maybe it is best if they just stay away from politics” (87% support strength). Companies should recognize that there is a group of consumers who hold this mentality and consider that their activism may negatively impact some of their decisions to support their brand. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t take that risk.
Why do you NOT believe that companies have a responsibility to speak out on social issues?
Younger generations have stronger feelings towards social issues than older generations
When looking closer at the responses to many of these questions, we notice a generational difference in the level of urgency that is allotted to these issues. In the question mentioned previously that asked respondents to indicate how strongly they feel about social issues, people under the age of 50 were more likely to indicate that they feel strongly about all social issues (48% under the age of 35, 45% between the ages of 35 and 50, and 26% over the age of 50) as opposed to feeling strongly about some and less strongly towards others (32% under the age of 35, 40% between the ages of 35 and 50, and 60% over the age of 50). From this we can assume that this younger age group tends to not place some issues over others in terms of importance—but rather see them all as being equally dire.
In a similar vein, when we look at the age breakdown of respondents who indicated their level of agreement with the statement “I believe that companies have the ability to make positive social changes,” individuals under the age of 35 were more likely to agree strongly with the statement than those older than them (59% under 35, 51% between 35-50, 42% over 50). Correspondingly, individuals under the age of 35 were more likely to strongly agree that “Companies have a responsibility to speak out on social issues” (38%) than those between the ages of 35 and 50 (24%) and over the age of 50 (18%). These results show us that younger people may have more faith in large institutions to enact change, and as a result feel more comfortable placing pressure on them to speak out on issues that are affecting the world.
Respondents are more likely to purchase from a company that speaks in favor of social issues that they care about
It is one thing to disagree with the actions (or lack thereof) of a brand, but it’s another to stop supporting a brand as a result of it. To discover how much a company’s activism affects consumer purchasing habits, we asked respondents how likely they are to purchase from brands that remain silent on social issues, brands that publicly oppose their views, and brands that publicly align with their views. Interestingly, many respondents appear to remain neutral towards a company that publicly opposes their opinions on social issues (41%) or does not speak out at all (54%). In other words, a silent or contradictory company would be unlikely to change their purchasing habits. We also notice, however, that respondents are more likely to purchase from a company that publicly aligns with their personal values and opinions (35% very likely, 27% somewhat likely).
Most people believe that companies can and should speak out on social issues, but it’s up to them to decide whether or not to take a stand
At a point in time where the amount of tragic news stories emerging can feel overwhelming, many of us can’t help but turn to large corporations to help amplify our voices. In this study, we made many meaningful discoveries relating to brand activism, namely that most respondents believe that companies can – and should – use their voices to make positive change in the world.
We also found that individuals under the age of 35, the age group that turns to social media most often for news, is the audience paying the closest attention to brand activism. And, as the data shows, they also have the highest expectations for companies they support.
It has also been determined that for the most part, speaking out on social issues will not deter consumers from supporting a business financially, and in fact, it may attract new business. Now, companies must decide whether they want to remain in the shadows and stay silent on issues that directly affect their consumers, or risk the potential backlash, speak out, and become the living embodiment of the values that they claim to hold.
Excellent discussion. I believe companies in the 20th century were more aware and created “Brands” that represented the companies values and desire to generate “Goodwill & Loyalty” with their target market. These companies indirectly market family values and were careful not to engage the religious beliefs and political views of their customers. We must admit that the U.S. “Segregation” systems and policies did not require and made it easy for companies stay on the sidelines and not take a side regarding any social issue. But “CHANGE” has arrived in the last decade of America history and the NEXT generation of consumers are not a “Do As I Say” and “Do Not Question the Status Quo” generation.
The 21st century global economies and the ever evolving younger generation of U.S. citizens are now creating and leading billion dollar organization.
Yes! I agree “Companies Taking a Stand on Social Issues – Long Overdue!” However, the companies mission, values, stakeholders and customers will have to “Balance” the Risk/Reward, Cost/Benefit propositions that comes with taking a “Hard Stand” on any social issue.
The purpose of an organization is to create and retain a customer. It is also to be a good corporate citizen in the marketplace in which the company does business. Taking care of customers and their community requires employees who are motivated to serve. Add that all together, it means championing the causes important to employees and customers. Which causes to champion starts with alignment of the organization’s core values. For example, Disney core values include “decency” and “community.” So, is it should not be a surprise they strongly support LGBTQ rights. Patagonia is grounded in taking care of the planet, a key value of its customer base. It should not be a surprise they took a strong position around climate control. Companies are made up of people and people have concerns and convictions. To ignore this fact is to place the company at risk of being perceived as heartless and greedy.
Regardless of the politicization of certain issues (such as climate change) organizations need to make decisions based on facts, data and science. It is in their interests to influence policy to protect their future business and future value. In the long term, sustainability is a business decision and enlightened self interest around that topic (as well as others such as income and wealth disparity) has to be part of the roadmap. Impoverished customers cannot buy and a damaged environment will have future costs that will hobble growth and the economy. The business community cannot leave the future to politics that discount facts and data.
Interesting questions and findings, GroupSolver. Your findings match the trends reported by Edelman Trust Barometer about customers, employees, and investors alike preferring brands aligned to their beliefs and values. CEOs are expected by more than 65% of people worldwide to step in when government does not fix societal problems (see page 34 in 2021 Trust Barometer).
I’m curious about the geographic representation of the 200 participants. I’ve lived in the San Francisco area for almost 3 decades, and since 2008 in particular, there is certainly a strong call for stopping support of brands that do not (1) behave or (2) speak out in accordance with personal values. Last year I moved to a different region, and that call-out is comparatively subdued. This is important for brands to consider.
Taking a bold stance can either polarize/repel or endear customers, workers, and investors. Trust is certainly in jeopardy already between brands and the public. Skimpflation is exacerbating distrust and even outrage.
It seems brands should carefully study what’s best for their brand specifically. Consider the story of JC Penney hiring as CEO the trendsetter who launched the Apple Store. This CEO’s attempts to “modernize” did not mesh with this brand’s workforce or customer base, and created a disaster.
First and foremost, BEHAVING in accordance with your core customers’ and core employees’ values is paramount. Trust is won or lost by consistency between talking and walking your values. Second is SPEAKING OUT, and this should be done in accordance with studies like yours, but even more so in matching your own constituency’s values.
My thoughts pretty much mirror those of Chip Bell’s. Support of social causes is an extension of the organization’s cultural DNA, and drives its internal and external behavior. There are truth and trust elements, and should be evident to employees and customers as well. As Rabbi Hillel famously said” “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And, if not now, when?
The world is so polarized now. Taking a stand often comes from and also leads to never-ending debates on what is right vs what is wrong. Can we not accept that what is right for one group of people could be wrong for another group of people and not force people, organizations, communities, society into taking stands?
Reading this article makes one wonder what the demographic breakdown of respondents could have been. Looking at a graph of statistics without knowing the numbers of respondents in the age categories is a bit deceptive. It is easy to agree younger respondents, who find life meaning via Instagram and Tik-Tok posts, are more prone to be “socially” active and outspoken. It is the faddish thing to do and they are all performing as their teachers and professors have taught them to, as lemmings. There are not many individuals, not just in the under 35 demographic, who can formulate an argument using critical thinking. These same individuals, when they are questioned on their beliefs and ideas, have a hard time articulating their thoughts. Give them a smartphone however, and they will change the world through a round of texting and social media constructs which would make Don Quixote proud. The author makes the point that most consumers are more likely to buy from those companies which align with their values. Isn’t this true of all decisions we make. One would not expose themselves to a group of non-like minded individuals when they feel discomfort just as they would not buy from a company which had a mixed up set of core values. The article brushes against a point that companies should worry about what they manufacture and get out of the politics and social activism. The reason it is hard for a consumer to leave a company brand, and this came up last night in a dinner conversation, is because all these companies are not committed to a single consumer. Unilever, for instance, made a bad decision in the eyes of some consumers, but where it may be easy to give up your Irish Spring soap, it may not be as easy to give up on Breyer’s Ice Cream. This is the dilemma facing todays consumer, too many companies have their hands in such a diverse array of products.