How Do Consumers Feel When Companies Get Political?February 17, 2020
Researchers surveyed 168 managers across industries, as well as advanced MBA students, to find out how business activism affects consumer perceptions. They found that people are less swayed by corporate advocacy than has been widely reported. When participants were told a company had conservative values, it was more negatively perceived, but when they were told a company had liberal values, their opinions of it remained neutral. They also found that women perceived organizations that are involved in political activity more negatively than men. Finally, they discovered that participants generally acknowledged that political advocacy is both a way for companies to connect with customers and promote their brand. Using advocacy to advertise to target audiences isn’t seen as manipulative pandering. Rather, it’s seen as common practice.
There was a time when companies, big and small, shied away from politics. The prevailing wisdom was that endorsing a cause was bad business. Better to stay away from advocacy, focus on sales, steer clear of sentiments, and avoid offending one side or the other. When businesses contributed to political campaigns, they often contributed equally across parties. Hedging political bets was the order of the day.
Things have changed.
The change started with the corporate social responsibility movement of the 1980s, when more companies began considering the impact their practices had on society and the environment. There was advocacy, but it was about products and processes, not politics. No one could take umbrage at a company that produced hormone- or BPA-free products or whose supply chain banned firms that employed abusive labor procedures. These were rooted in ethics as opposed to political ideologies.
As society became politically polarized, companies became more activist. With a 24-hour news cycle and social media fanning polarization, it’s more problematic for organizations and their CEOs to remain neutral. Consider what’s happened in the past decade: Hobby Lobby — a chain of craft stores that challenged a federal mandate stating companies pay for insurance coverage for contraception — took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. Nike featured the controversial athlete and social crusader, Colin Kaepernick, in an ad campaign. Retailers like Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling certain weapons in response to tragic mass shootings nationwide.
Some say this is the right path for business to take, as it can solidify bonds with important stakeholders. Others say advocacy should be avoided at all costs for the exact opposite reason — it can alienate employees and customers.
A lot has been written about both sides. But which is right? Does political advocacy have the power to change consumers’ minds? Does it really affect stakeholder attitudes? Are people willing to apply for jobs at…