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Should Brands Address Social Issues or is That the Third Rail of Business Today

Business leaders, many of whom grew up in the era of “never discuss politics or religion in polite company”, are caught in a contentious environment today where half of the consumers want their brands to address social issues and half of them want them to keep those hot button topics out of their shopping carts and social media feeds.

“As conflict around the globe continues, marketers are put in a challenging position when it comes to making brand statements. It’s nearly impossible to make a perfectly neutral statement that will satisfy all points of view, which is what many brands try to do in an effort to avoid alienating potential customers,” writes Lestraundra Alfred for HubSpot.

It’s a fraught subject with no right or wrong answers except maybe that politics and religion are still out-of-bounds for most with just 19 percent surveyed in the Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report wanting their brands to take a stance on political candidates and only 15 percent want to hear your brand’s views on religion.

Social Issues Can Put Your Company in the Crosshairs of Controversy

Even those companies that wade into social issues cautiously can find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy – just ask Bud Light which faced a backlash on both sides of a social issue this year.

And Bud Light is not the first company to wade into troubled waters on social issues.

“Should companies take a stand on social issues? Think Nike, Gillette, and Bonobos.  Brands decide to take on a social issue to be "relevant" to their customers - and the internet explodes in negativity,” writes Karen Tibbals, author of Marketing Landmines: The Next Generation of Emotional Branding. “Should brands do this?  The short answer is … it depends.  It depends on your target audience and what you are trying to achieve.”

Mixed Signals from Consumer Surveys

While “it depends” may not be the definitive answer anyone is searching for, it certainly lines up with the reality in a world where consumer surveys can send mixed signals to brands.

In HubSpot’s State of Consumer Trends in 2023, brands that target younger demographics such as Millennials and Gen Z need to pay attention to the fact that these consumers place a greater value on brands making a stand on social issues vs. older consumers.

Some of the findings from HubSpot that would suggest addressing social issues is the right move include:

  • Companies taking a stance on social issues has grown more important and influential on consumers’ purchasing decisions, with 49 percent of U.S. adults saying brands should do more regarding social advocacy.

  • For Gen Z:  racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate change are the most important issues.

  • 20 percent of Gen Z say a brand’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of the top five factors in their purchase decision.

  • 42 percent of consumers say they are more likely to buy a product based on the brand’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, up 17 percent from last year.

  • The percentage of consumers that chose a product based on the brand’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the past 3 months reached 37 percent in May 2023 up from 30 percent in May 2022 – a rise of 23 percent.

At the same time, the Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report found less than half (41 percent) of Americans say businesses should take a public stance on current events, a decline of 7 percentage points from 2022.

Slim Majority Want to Hear Brands on Climate Change and Mental Health

Of the 11 issues surveyed in the report, the only two that a majority of Americans – by a slim margin – favored brands commenting on publicly were climate change (55 percent) and mental health (52 percent).

“These two topic areas — the environment and mental health — are also those that businesses’ behaviors and attitudes likely affect the most; while the public might perceive businesses as having to comply with regulations related to other policy areas (e.g., promoting equitable hiring practices, providing healthcare for employees), they are less likely to feel businesses should be influencing those policies,” said the report.

When asked: “Do you think that business in general should take a public stance on subjects that have to do with the following?”, respondents said:

  • Climate change 55 percent
  • Mental health 52 percent
  • Free speech 49 percent
  • Healthcare issues 49 percent
  • Racial issues 45 percent
  • Gun laws 39 percent
  • LGBTQ+ issues 37 percent
  • Immigration policy 34 percent
  • International conflicts 27 percent
  • Abortion 26 percent
  • Political candidates 19 percent
  • Religion 15 percent

Again, however, not all age groups agree to the same degree.

“Overall, younger Americans are more supportive of businesses speaking out: Whereas only 35 percent of Americans aged 45 and over believe businesses should speak out on current events, 47 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds think they should, and an even higher percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds (53 percent) want businesses to take a public stance,” said the report. “This division by age group persists when Americans are asked about specific issues as well. Younger Americans are much more likely than adults over 60 to support businesses taking public stances on LGBTQ+ issues, climate change, racial concerns, and abortion.”

The report concluded that this represents a large divide between younger consumers and the older executives who run many U.S. businesses.

What Should the Role of Business Be in Society?

Perhaps it comes down to a fundamental question of what the role of business should be in society.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical in a global survey.

“Great expectations result in heightened risk for business,” said Edelman. “While people want business to do more on social issues, it risks being politicized when engaging on contentious issues.”

Alfred in the HubSpot article argues that while “a majority of consumers want to see brands refrain from making direct statements about societal issues, companies are still seen as major agents of change.”

E. LaBrent Chrite, President of Bentley University, in the forward to the Bentley-Gallup report concurs.

“At its best, business can provide an enabling pathway for families, communities, and societies. In an era when incivility, anger, and tribalism have driven many to the extreme ends of the political spectrum, businesses can provide an important alternative, bringing us together in support of the stores where we shop or the companies where we work instead of pushing us apart,” wrote Chrite.

The Edelman global survey found that consumers were most comfortable with the CEOs of their brands taking a public stand on some issues such as climate change (82 percent), discrimination (80 percent) and the wealth gap (77 percent).

Whatever your business decides, the path forward is one paved with statements and stances on social issues that are carefully and thoughtfully prepared and executed. And even that may not be enough to keep your brand out of controversy.