Brands Taking a Social Stand: The Risks and Rewards

by MAi Research April 15, 2021

There is no doubt that consumers like to feel connected to the brands they are buying. According to a Sproutsocial survey fielded in August 2019, 70% of consumers want brands to connect with them. All well and good, but what do we want our brands to say?

Brands are building connections through social contact.

Companies have been learning quickly that social contact can drive consumers to feel more loyal to their favorite brands.  Every day brings a new example of brands taking positions and creating discussion on social issues, for example:

  • Brands like Spotify, Patagonia, and Etsy are giving their U.S. based workers Election Day as a paid day off
  • Wal-Mart ended sales of handgun ammunition after a mass shooting in one of their stores.
  • Steak-umm’s Twitter account (yes, that Steak-umm) is becoming well-known for addressing issues like scientific literacy and cognitive biases, taking on noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson this week for what they labeled reductive thinking.

Who does it matter to most? 

Younger consumers in particular think it is important for brands to take a stand.

Three-quarters of Generation Z and 80% of Millennials feel it is important for brands to take a stand, compared to 68% of Baby Boomers and only 58% of Generation X who feel similarly.  If your brand is targeted at younger consumers, they are looking at you to know where you stand and see if it aligns with their points of view.

Why do consumers expect this from brands?

Consumers see brands as having real power to drive change – partially because of their broad audiences and significant resources.

They see it at play in their own lives.  Brands are effective at:

  • Raising awareness: Sixty-seven percent of consumers say brands have been effective in raising awareness around important public issues while 62% believe brands are successfully educating consumers on important topics.
  • Inspiring action: When prompted by a brand, 61% of consumers will conduct further research into an issue, and 53% of consumers say they are likely to register to vote.

When’s the right time to speak?

We want our brands and corporations to take a social stand. We will forgive them for having a perspective different from us. However, we expect to see the connection between the company’s message and the brand’s values. If the brand cannot communicate this vision, then the stand will do more harm than good in the public’s eyes. Brands should speak out:

  • When it is relevant to their business: 43% of consumers say brands should speak out when an issue directly impacts their business. For the connection to matter, the company must make it clear how they connect to the message.
  • When it is relevant to their core values: Thirty-eight percent of customers say brands should take a stand when a topic relates to a company’s values
  • When the brand has been called out: 33% say brands must respond when faced with consumer backlash.

What are the risks?

Brands must navigate between consumer desire for social contact and risks, including skepticism about authenticity.

Companies have leaned into using social contact to reinforce consumer’s brand loyalty, but the waters of consumer attitudes are fraught with dangers and brands need to avoid:

  • The vocal brand perception problem: Fifty-three percent of consumers believe brands only take a stand for public relations or marketing purposes (e.g. greenwashing for environmentalism, “getting woke” for social justice issues).  To mitigate these issues, brands can join forces with non-profits and experts in the field to demonstrate commitment and gain credibility.
  • High Risk for low reward: Speaking out can create both positive and negative impacts for brands.  Over half of consumers (55%) say they would boycott a brand whose stance they disagreed with.
  • Employees can and will be vocal; are you ready?  More than three-quarters of all consumers (77%) believe employees have a responsibility to speak up when their employers make business decisions that contradict a company’s stated values.

Successfully navigating these risks can help you engage more deeply with your customers.

Understanding your consumers and how they feel about current events and cultural topics is at the core of proactively taking a stand.  MAi is ready to help you get to know your customers and their underlying values so you can connect with them more deeply and engage authentically.

For more about our firm and how we support our clients, please visit mairesearch.com.