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Brands risk backlash for political stance

News, 26 May 2017
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NEW YORK: Brands may not derive benefit from aligning with social or political causes, findings from two studies conducted in the US suggest.

The twin studies – a poll of 300 agency professionals and a complementary survey of 1,000 consumers – were conducted by the 4A's and research partner SSRS.

Together, the studies revealed that although two thirds (67%) of agency respondents were seeing brands becoming more interested in corporate responsibility, 58% of consumers dislike it when brands take a stance on politics.

Though agency respondents registered the distinction between political and social stances, 33% reported that brands they worked with were afraid to take a political stance, while 14% were afraid to take a social stance.

Social stances appear to be less risky, according to the agency respondents, as a quarter of brands (26%) felt more compelled to take a social stance, compared to the 7% who felt they ought to take a political one.

However, among consumers, the SSRS study showed that the majority of consumers disliked brands that take a political slant. Greater risks await brands that choose to adopt non-progressive positions (racism, anti-LGBTQ, or sexist) than brands with progressive positions.

"Brands taking a negative approach risk backlash, and only a small percentage of consumers are moved to buy from positive messaging," said Alison Fahey, CMO at the 4A's.

"Consumers are not looking to brands to take a position on political or social issues. In fact, there's typically more risk than benefit," she added.

Similarly, the agency poll showed that 57% of professionals acknowledge that the need to understand the demographics and values of a brand's consumers is greater than ever.

The risks to brands of articulating an unpopular position among key demographics are receiving ever-greater attention.

In a recent paper in the Harvard Business Review, researchers registered that the post-election polarization in the country was bleeding into people's relationships, both personal and economic, including those with brands.

The results, the researchers say, highlight that in the US, partisanship has become an important "social identity" extending beyond policy beliefs or specific politicians.

What comes through, the authors concluded, "is that partisanship's power is not limited to politics".

Data sourced from 4A's, SSRS, Harvard Business Review; additional content by WARC staff

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