While ad agencies see merits of taking a stand, 4A's survey reveals most consumers are put off when brands get political

Brand activism

The recent Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad backlash that caused Pepsi to swiftly remove the ad and apologize seems to be a prime example of the current dilemma of brands trying to demonstrate a political stance and failing.

With politics at the forefront of the social agenda, consumers want to see that such issues are handled more sensitively, if at all, by brands such as Pepsi. With one recent report estimating seven-in-ten Americans believe companies have an obligation to take actions to improve issues, there is no doubt consumers are looking more closely at those businesses that feel the same way.

To take a deeper look, trade association 4A’s took a two-fold approach and conducted two recent studies where they sought both ad agency professionals' beliefs about brands taking a stand on one hand, and consumers' reactions to brands becoming political on the other.

With two-thirds of agency professionals (67%) believing that changing American values are causing brands to become more vocal about corporate responsibility and values-based marketing, agencies acknowledge that many brands are reluctant to take a political stance (33%) and are concerned about taking a social stand (14%).

With brands more often compelled to take a social stance (26%) than a political one (7%), the 4A’s, along with market research partner SSRS, learned in a second study that 58% of consumers dislike it when brands get political. Further, consumers surveyed said they are more likely to avoid brands that take a negative position (eg those that are perceived to be racist, anti-LGBTQ or sexist) than to support those that take a positive position (eg those that are perceived to be inclusive, pro-LGBTQ and feminist).

“Consumers are not looking to brands to take a position on political or social issues. In fact, there’s typically more risk than benefit,” said Alison Fahey, chief marketing officer of the 4A’s. “Brands taking a negative approach risk backlash, and only a small percentage of consumers are moved to buy from positive messaging.”

While agency professionals believe brands are more inclined to take a social stance than a political one, 57% cite that demographics and values of a brand’s customers are now more important than ever. Additionally, 34% of respondents counsel their clients on the need for more diverse perspectives in creative or planning, 30% counsel clients to align with social or political issues and 24% factor social and political issues in media buys.

Additionally, there are some interesting trends among consumers that speak to the importance of distancing oneself from a political brand, like President Donald Trump because when it comes to political endorsements of brands, more than half of consumers (51%) reported that President Trump’s policies have made companies and brands more vocal and inclined to take action; but endorsements are not impacting their purchasing decisions. In fact, when the president gives a brand or product a positive endorsement, almost one-quarter of consumers (22%) say they are less likely to purchase the product.

Regardless of whether he tweeted a positive or negative endorsement, about three-quarters (74%) of respondents said it had no impact on their purchasing decisions.

The 4A’s member survey was conducted in April and May 2017 via email; 329 4A’s members responded. The consumer survey was fielded by research partner SSRS; surveys were completed from March 29, 2017, to April 7, 2017, among a nationally represented sample of 1,056 respondents aged 18 and over.

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Laurie Fullerton

Laurie Fullerton is a writer based in Boston, MA with a background in business, sports, community, medical and travel writing. She has been a newspaper editor in the Boston-area, a sports writer covering yacht racing and a community reporter. She has been reporting for The Drum since October 2015.

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