Consumers Are Less Interested in Brands Taking Stances on Sociopolitical Issues, Survey Finds

Consumers’ desire for companies to weigh in on current events and sociopolitical topics has fallen as brands such as Bud Light increasingly find themselves caught in the culture war crossfire, according to new research conducted by Gallup and Bentley University.

Forty-one percent of Americans say businesses in general should take stances on current events, down from 48% last year, with declines found across age and ethnic groups, according to the survey.

The second annual Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report surveyed 5,458 Americans ages 18 and older, weighted to represent the overall U.S. population, between May 8 and May 15, while the backlash to a Bud Light promotion with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney was still going strong.

Below the top line, however, the survey’s findings illustrate the increasing complexity that marketers face in navigating a divided society. They also hint at opportunities for businesses to meet consumers’ growing demands in other areas, experts say.

Gallup also found, for example, that most young, Black and Asian consumers still want brands to speak out on issues that matter to them. And a majority of respondents overall said businesses should speak out on the specific issues of climate change and mental health.

Religion, abortion, political candidates and international conflict were particularly verboten, on the other hand, with fewer than 30% saying brands should address these topics.

Rather than speaking out on issues, respondents said they wanted companies to make a positive impact by providing employees with fair wages and quality healthcare benefits, avoiding major pay gaps between chief executives and lower-level employees, and operating in an environmentally sustainable way.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said businesses have some power or a great degree of power to make a positive impact on people’s lives. But only 8% believe they have been extremely effective in doing so, with 50% saying they have been somewhat effective.

“Most U.S. adults think businesses are not delivering on the core functions of what they think a business is for," said Zach Hrynowski, a research consultant at Gallup. “That feeds into why people are less likely to want to hear from businesses, because they just don’t trust them."

Messaging is not enough to counter consumers’ dissatisfaction with the effects of real-world business practices, said Richard Edelman, CEO of his namesake public-relations network, Edelman.

“The American public wants action from business and not just communication and advocacy," he said.

Culture war conundrum

The heightened cultural tensions that have put marketers under pressure aren’t going anywhere, said Cynthia E. Clark, professor of management at Bentley University, who contributed to the report.

“You need to have a very thoughtful approach to speaking out, because what’s happening right now, in this moment, is when you speak out you may be entering into a culture war," Clark said. “We have red and blue states; are we going to have red and blue companies?"

The declining consumer interest in brand activism in Gallup’s survey was driven largely by self-described Democrats. Sixty-two percent of Democrats told researchers that brands should speak out, down from 75% last year. Thirty-six percent of independents said the same, down from 40% a year earlier, as did 17% of Republicans, down from 18%.

Edelman has also reported some warning signals for marketers that are considering taking stands on issues.

The number of consumers who said they are more likely to buy from or advocate for brands that share their own values dropped to 52% in June from 65% a year before, with the largest decline among self-described Republicans, according to Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer report.

In order to take a public stance on an issue, brands must be ready to demonstrate that issue’s relevance to their own operations, said Edelman.

“You may still get blowback from people on the right or the left, but you have to withstand it and explain, it’s core to our business," he said.

Agreement on sustainability and AI

Despite abundant evidence of division, a few controversial topics do inspire something approaching consensus.

Fifty-five percent of respondents in the Gallup survey said brands should speak out on sustainability. That may be because businesses have a more demonstrable effect on climate change than on other sociopolitical matters, said Hrynowski, the Gallup research consultant.

“The public sees business as having a role in that conversation by virtue of what a business does," he said.

Yet even opinions on that topic largely fall along political and generational lines, with younger consumers and self-described Democrats significantly more likely than Republicans and older adults to say that businesses have a negative effect on the environment.

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