Wading Into Politics and Social Activism Is Losing Its Appeal to Corporations and Brands

5/17/23 – – With Bud Light’s self-inflicted brand conflagration still burning, enthusiasm among corporations and CEOs for social/political activism appears to be waning.

A perceptible pull-back is underway. According to a survey of corporate communications executives conducted in September 2022 by Regan Communications and the public relations firm Peppercomm, only 18 percent of companies reported that they were very likely to speak out on societal issues in the coming quarter.

The reluctance to jump into this brand-killing briar patch is based on solid evidence — including the evolving Bud Light case study — that most consumers do not appreciate this behavior by the folks who manufacture and market the stuff they buy.  

Over the last few years, business professors and PR gurus have deemed it obligatory for business leaders to speak out on even the most controversial issues of the day. We’ve been told that employees and the public demand it. However, consumer research tells a very different story, confirming that more people are turned off by corporate activism then turned on — by a wide margin.

It didn’t get much media attention, but an April 2021 opinion poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist found that when people were asked, “Do you support or oppose American companies using their public role, position, or events to influence political, cultural, or social change?” 36 percent supported, 57 percent opposed.    

Pundits downplaying such findings point to research showing that consumers do appreciate and support corporate activism and politicization when it aligns with their beliefs. What they fail to mention, however, is the high degree of consumer resentment when it doesn’t.

According to polling this year by YouGov/Yahoo News of people who watch sports on TV, about 11 percent said they watch more as a result of political and social messaging, while 34.5 percent said they are watching less because of this intrusion.

We see this resentment in the entertainment industry as well. An April 18, 2023, New York Times article headlined “The Oscars Are a Week Away, But How Many Will Watch?” reported:

“Increasingly, the ceremonies are less about entertainment honors and more about progressive politics, which inevitably annoys those in the audience who disagree. One recent producer of the Oscars, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics, said minute-by-minute post-show ratings analysis indicated that ‘vast swaths’ of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics.”

A 2018 Stanford Graduate School of Business study (“The Double-Edged Sword of CEO Activism”) further confirmed the dangers of corporate activism:

“The most surprising result of the survey is that, while Americans claim to change their purchasing behavior depending on their agreement with an activist CEO’s position, respondents are significantly more likely to remember products they stopped using or use less because of the position the CEO took than products they started using or use more. Specifically, 35 percent of the public could think of a product or service they use less, while only 20 percent could think of a product they use more.”

The Stanford researchers concluded:

“CEOs who take public positions might build loyalty with employees, customers, or constituents, but these same positions can inadvertently alienate important segments of those populations”.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Where Crises Come From”), we focus on politics as one of the primary sources of corporate crises. CEOs thinking about tackling sensitive issues need to consider the fact that the American public is pretty much split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Both ends of the political spectrum hold passionate beliefs and have little patience for opposing views.

Pick a side or push a controversial social agenda in today’s toxic environment and you’ll almost certainly offend large segments of the population, including your customer base, as Bud Light found out the hard way.

I’m not suggesting that taking political/societal stands is always wrong for every company. Some founder-run companies like Patagonia and Chick-fil-A were born with strong positions baked into their DNA (Patagonia = environmentalism, Chick-fil-A = traditional marriage). Consumers respect that level of authenticity, clarity and consistency, which goes well beyond virtue signaling.

Companies get into trouble when they suddenly step out of character to preach on a societal issue or express a political point of view — often without a commitment to follow through. Such a misstep chases away existing customers and fails to attract new business.   

In the weeks since Bud Light’s marketing debacle, you may have heard people saying something like, “I want a beer, not a sermon.” Or, “If I knew how they really thought about me, I would have stopped drinking their lousy beer years ago.”

You may also have heard, “I’ve always been offended by Bud Light’s commercials, and if they think supporting one trans online influencer is going to make me feel more highly of them, they’re more clueless than I thought.”

What you probably have not heard is, “Wow! Now that they’ve changed their ways, I can’t wait to go out and order a Bud Light.”

So, what should corporate executives do?

I recommend they spend more time getting their own houses in order and resist the urge to lecture the public. It’s enough of a challenge (and reward) to make sure you’re doing the right thing inside your company — including treating all your employees fairly, manufacturing safe, sustainable products that deliver value to all your customers, and contributing to the health and prosperity of the communities you serve.

Staying in your lane and sticking to business does not mean turning away from important societal issues. There’s plenty to do within a company to make the world a better place. Know your customers and don’t be pushed — by business professors, PR gurus, politicians or employees — into contentious public debates that have little or nothing to do with your products or services.

I’m sure a few executives at AB InBev and its Anheuser–Busch subsidiary would agree with that advice.

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