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A majority of consumers (63 percent), according to a new survey from SAP, say they prefer to purchase holiday gifts from brands that support specific social causes. This echoes earlier surveys that argue consumers increasingly want brands to take public social and political positions.

The emerging consensus among marketers is that in the current climate brands are no longer able to “remain on the sidelines” and are compelled to stake out positions on controversial social issues. The most recent, high-profile example of this was Nike’s Just Do It anniversary campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, which was controversial but actually helped Nike financially and with key audiences.

Two very different kinds of studies now paint a more nuanced and complex picture of how consumer behavior is affected when brands take sides.

Politics didn’t affect store visits. The first study, from location intelligence company Gravy Analytics, found that public positions taken by brands have not played out in terms of who is or isn’t buying their products.

Gravy compared actual store visitation by “political activists” at more than 2,000 retail stores, hotels, restaurants and grocery stores. Among the brands in the study were Apple, Athleta, Bloomingdale’s, Cinnabon, Dave & Buster’s, GAP Outlet, Haagen Dazs, Jos. A. Bank, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Lacoste, LensCrafters, Marriott Hotels, Nordstrom Rack, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Six Flags and US Airways.

Political activists here were defined as “mobile consumers observed at events categorized as either liberal (Democratic) or conservative (Republican).” Gravy found that the location of brands (urban, suburban or rural) had an impact on visitation to some degree. For example, New York based pharmacy chain Duane Reade saw more liberal-leaning visitors by default.

But overall, the company said politics did not appear to impact brand/store visitation in the aggregate. There were even some counter-intuitive findings. According to the company’s data:

  • Patagonia: Conservatives were 13 percent more likely to visit than liberals (Patagonia is closely associated with environmental causes).
  • Ben & Jerry’s: Liberals were only 3 percent more likely to visit than conservatives.
  • Nike: Conservatives were 1 percent more likely to visit stores than liberals (this data was captured largely before the Kaepernick campaign).
  • Starbucks: Conservatives were 8 percent more likely to visit than liberals.

Politics are connected to brand affinity. Engagement Labs found something very different. The company asks people about recent shopping and purchase behavior. It measures online social media sentiment and offline conversations through surveys. It doesn’t ask about future behavior or purchase intentions; it asks about very recent behavior (this week, yesterday).

In contrast to the Gravy study, Engagement Labs found that consumers’ brand preferences were definitely influenced by politics. Engagement Labs’ Brad Fay was unable to fully account for the seeming contradiction between the Gravy data and his firm’s findings, but explained that Engagement Labs’ survey methodology was sound. He cautioned however, that brands should not rely exclusively on social media sentiment because it’s the least likely to be an accurate predictor of consumer purchase behavior.

He affirmed that brand affinity and party identification are definitely connected. He also told me that some brands are more polarizing than others and may see a larger effect accordingly. Brands such as Allstate Insurance, Capital One, Panera, JetBlue, KitchenAid and the NBA were “blue brands.” Audi, American Express, GE, Hobby Lobby, Kroger and State Farm were “red brands.” Fay says this definitely plays out in visitation and purchases.

Brand marketers: think like a politician. The totality of evidence does suggest that brand positions on social and political issues do matter. But it’s not a simple equation. The specific impact may partly depend on variables like the contentiousness of the issue itself, the physical location of stores (urban vs. rural) and how long the controversy lasts. In other words, the effect will likely fade over time.

Engagement Labs’ Brad Fay’s advice to marketers is that “they should think like politicians.” Fay says that brands need to thoroughly understand their audiences. “Figure out what you want to do and whether that’s consistent with the audience. Brands may need to lead but lead cautiously.”

He adds that the broader the brand’s audience the more likely it is to be taking a risk by taking a stand on controversial issues. Smaller brands have more upside, he says. “You want to generate advocacy and smaller brands are better able to do that. Advocacy is fueled by passion; that can be rocket fuel as a brand.”

By contrast, “Big brands have to weigh alienating segments of their audience,” explains Fay. Yet he adds that brands do in fact need to decide what they stand for. “People want to give their business to brands with values that they believe in. That affects all brands off all sizes, but it’s easier for small brands to take advantage of that.”


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