The culture wars have come for business: brands responding to big, often divisive issues face an uneven and sometimes contradictory landscape, writes WARC’s Brian Carruthers.

The backlash is well and truly under way. In the US, Republicans and conservative legal activists are targeting corporate DEI initiatives and ESG ratings. In the UK, the Conservative government and right-leaning media are conducting an ongoing war on the ‘woke’ agenda and questioning green policies

It’s all a far cry from a few short years ago when the Black Lives Matter movement was garnering a huge wave of support from business (albeit some were more enthusiastic than others), and there was a greater degree of optimism on sustainability following the COP26 summit.

Strange how the parties of business on both sides of the Atlantic are at odds with a significant number of those they profess to support. Or maybe not. Politicians think in terms of electoral cycles, while businesses give more consideration to things like customer lifetime value which necessitates a longer view (even as those same businesses juggle with the quarterly demands of the stock market). 

And if you’re considering CLV, then clearly there’s a lot more potential in younger consumers, who are more likely to support initiatives around diversity, inclusion and sustainability. Older generations are less likely to be exercised to the same extent by these concerns. 

The advertising and marketing industry is sometimes accused of being too focused on youth, and brands are certainly in danger of neglecting the spending power of older consumers. 

Politicians, meanwhile, are too focused on an older demographic, largely because they’re more likely to vote. That’s why the UK has a triple pension lock, while students emerge from college laden with debt, many unable to get on an expensive housing ladder while at the same time being encouraged to start putting aside money they don’t have for their future pension.

There’s always been some degree of tension between business and politics, but what’s new is the increasing disconnect between the ostensible supporters of business and businesses themselves. That was never more evident than in the “F*** business” comment of Boris Johnson in 2018 when he was the UK’s foreign secretary. 

That was in response to the expressed concerns of business over the effects of a yet-to-happen Brexit, since when the adverse impact of an ill-conceived policy has become all too clear. Cross-border trade with Europe is far more difficult as businesses struggle under the weight of increased paperwork of the sort that Brexit’s backers promised to sweep away. And it’s not even finished yet: the implementation of checks on food imports at the UK border was recently postponed for a fifth time because of the potential effects on inflation. But, hey, there’s always the CPTPP

Rather than address real business problems that affect the economy and jobs, government and media are more exercised by why one man lost his account at an exclusive bank, or whether a coffee chain should express support for transgender people.

At least the UK is not yet regulating or legislating against companies that pay some heed to consumer values. Polarisation runs much deeper in the US, where a Trumpified Republican party is moving beyond rhetoric to seek legal judgement on affirmative action programmes. The Wall Street Journal outlines how activists are challenging corporate diversity programs, using legislation designed to secure the rights of Black Americans.

Opinions differ on how successful these cases will be, but there’s an expectation that the Supreme Court will become involved at some point. Before that happens, it’s likely that some companies will succumb to the growing pressure and scale back or end such programs. Others will find themselves stuck in an uncertain position, seeking to comply with civil rights statutes while being accused of taking that too far. 

At the same time as businesses ponder how to react to external political pressures, they also have to consider the response of employees. Again this comes back to a generational divide as younger people consistently express a desire to work for a business that reflects their own values. What chance of recruiting talent if you’re actively alienating it by scrapping diversity efforts?

“On the inside people want a more inclusive culture,” Asad Dhunna, founder of the inclusion consultancy Unmistakables, told Bloomberg. “But on the outside, you’ve got quite a visceral backlash to words like diversity and inclusion.”

Brands will be walking a tightrope for a few years, especially if Donald Trump manages to get re-elected in the US. There aren’t any easy answers, but the Groucho Marx take – “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others” – isn’t going to cut it in the culture wars.