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Consumers 'Expect' Brands to Be Political

image for Rawf8 / Getty Images
Rawf8 / Getty Images
  • 53% of respondents said corporations have recently become more political. Fewer respondents said major companies were "more responsible, charitable, or in touch with average Americans."
  • Among today's hottest politically charged topics, environmental issues get the best reaction from consumers.
  • 31% of Gen Z and 27% of millennials feel corporations "play an important role in this country, and they should use their influence to impact political and cultural issues," while just 16% of Gen X and 13% of boomers said the same.

Politics may be one of those topics that you generally refrain from discussing in polite company, but a newly released survey from Morning Consult and Advertising Week suggests that companies are becoming more politically engaged – and more liberal – in the process.

According to a poll of 4,200 Americans, with an oversample of 1,000 millennials and 1,000 Gen Zers, that ran online Aug. 13-15, 53% of adults feel corporations have become more political in recent years. The data also suggests that 31% of Gen Z and 27% of millennials now "expect brands to play a larger role" in political and cultural issues.

"The youngest consumers have grown up watching brands engage with political and cultural issues – and they're more likely to see that as an important role," researchers wrote. "Older Americans are far more skeptical."

To put that latter part into perspective, researchers said less than half (43%) of Gen Z adults said corporations should stay out of the political fray, while 72% of boomers said so. Just 24% of overall respondents said corporations were "more in touch with the American public," while 23% said corporations were more ethical in recent years.

With politics in the age of President Donald Trump seen as a largely contentious area of discussion, it's important for businesses to tread carefully. Their interactions with today's hot-button issues show that some are treading more lightly than others.

American politics, and the issues that matter to the average American, pervade everyday life – especially since the 2016 election. Whether you were a staunch supporter of Trump or distraught by Hillary Clinton's electoral loss, you likely have a stance on where the country is going. Couple those feelings with the ongoing discussion around race, immigration, trade tensions with China and a litany of other issues, and you get a very potent tool that some corporations have used to increase their visibility among consumers.

When asked in the survey how they would feel if a company advocated for one issue over another, respondents said they were most likely to support a company that acts favorably toward the U.S. military, with 60% of all adults polled showing support. That number dipped a little among liberals at 48%, but moderates (66%) and conservatives (76%) were relatively in line with the overall average. Support for criminal justice reform and racial equality also saw generally positive reactions from those polled.

Issues that didn't play well among respondents were when a company supports stricter immigration and abortion policies and the right to kneel during the national anthem. In both instances, reactions differed widely based on respondents' political leanings. Similar reactions were found when a theoretical company would throw their support behind a Democratic or Republican lawmaker's election, with respondents from opposite parties reacting very negatively in either case.

Regardless, liberals say they feel like the most catered-to group, as 59% said they felt it was more common for corporations to share their political stances. By comparison, 41% of conservatives and 42% of moderates said the same. That being said, 43% of liberals said they've boycotted brands as a result of their political leanings.

In the instances when a company acts against a block of consumers' political leanings, there's often a call for action against that corporation. In recent memory, right-leaning consumers have called for boycotts against numerous corporations for their stances against Trump-era policies, while left-wingers have made similar calls against companies that support Republicans.

But do those boycotts work, and how often do they stick? According to researchers, 29% of consumers polled said they "stopped buying the products or services of a company" because of its political actions. That figure stands in contrast to the 15% of respondents who said they actively spent money to support a company because of its political stance.

Researchers also found that well-educated, liberal and wealthier Americans were more likely to vote with their wallets than other demographics. Broken down by generation, data suggests that liberal millennials (47%) and Gen Xers (48%) were the most likely group to boycott, with moderate Gen Zers proving the least likely at 18%. Conservative consumers may be the loudest group to call for boycotts, but only 28% of Gen Z, 23% of millennials, 36% of Gen X and 35% of boomers said they'd actively boycotted.

Trust for corporations in America is also low, as just 5% of respondents said they trusted CEOs "a lot" and only 23% said they trusted them "some." That places CEOs among politicians and the government in the sub-10% range for trust.

Another seemingly untrusted entity was corporate brands, with just 6% of people saying they trust them "a lot," even as companies like Amazon have recently tried to interact with personal politics.

As we inch closer to the 2020 general election, the entire country's attention has shifted to the coming contest between Trump and one of 20 Democrats currently going through the primary process. With so much focus on the looming election, corporations have weighed in – sometimes unwittingly – with their support for one candidate or another. Among the candidates currently vying for the presidency, Trump and Vermont independent-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders lead the pack as the most impactful politicians "inspiring boycotts and shaping brand perceptions."

When it comes to Sanders and his brand of democratic socialism, 8% of respondents said they would boycott a company if he called for it, while 30% said they would see a brand differently based on his critiques.

Trump is no stranger to boycotts, as he and his family have been the target of them in the past and he has pushed to incite boycotts against companies that have slighted him. According to the survey, 10% of respondents said they would definitely participate in a boycott if he called for one, while 27% said their view of a brand would change based on his criticisms.

Even associating a brand with Trump can have an adverse effect on business. According to researchers, if a company or brand were to issue a statement on Trump and his policies, they would be more likely to face backlash from consumers.

Among all adults, 25% said they would view a company "much more unfavorably" if they were to put out a positive statement about Trump, while only 14% said they would be "much more favorable" in that same instance. Conversely, if a company were to come out against Trump, 16% of all adults would see that company more favorably, while 21% would see it less favorably.

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. Currently, he is responsible for reviewing tax software and online fax services. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.