Why Political Activism Will Be The New Brand Purpose

As far as epochs go, the past several years of multiple health, economic, social and political crises likely will impact consumer mindsets -- and marketing -- for some time to come.

But unlike previous game-changing historical events such as the Great Depression or World War II, this one is multivariate, ongoing and defies a single definition or identity.

Kantar Chief Knowledge Officer J. Walker Smith may have the best articulation of the shift in consumer mindsets that I’ve ever heard, describing them in longitudinal waves:

  • Post-World War II: It’s the product, stupid.

  • Post-the “Me Decade”: It’s about me, stupid.

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    Post-the new Millennium: It’s about us, stupid.

Consumers were already beginning to transition their brand expectations as the Millennium began turning, but it was a series of global crises -- first the Great Recession, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, and a wave of social injustice outrage sparked by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder -- that accelerated the shift.

The good news is that brand marketers have largely responded well, and data from Edelman’s periodic Trust Barometer shows that many consumers now trust companies and their brands more than they do other institutions like governments, the media, etc.

And you need only have attended this year’s Cannes Lions festival to know how genuine some of the world’s greatest brand marketing has been in addressing societal needs.

But I’m willing to predict that the new “brand purpose” will -- and needs to be -- “brand activism,” including the explicitly political kind.

Brand marketers already are straddling the political spectrum indirectly by taking a stand on social injustice, inclusion and equity, which a number of studies have shown already is triggering some partisan political divides among consumers.

But new research -- some released just this week -- indicates many consumers now expect brands to take more explicit political stands.

Nearly half (47%) of consumers polled by in July said they are “unlikely to buy products or services from companies not aligned with their political views.”

Interestingly, women skew that response, with 53% of female respondents supporting brands taking on a politically activist stance versus only 38% of male respondents.

“The top reasons that women consider politics when patronizing businesses are that they do not want their money to support causes they oppose, and they want it to have an impact beyond the purchase,” explains in its report.

Another study released this week by the U.K.’s Data & Marketing Association (DMA) finds “nearly half of consumers (45%) would like to be able to filter products by the values that matter to them when shopping online, such as sustainability or localism.” The DMA’s findings were based on a survey of British consumers conducted in August, but I’m pretty sure they would hold up if fielded in the U.S.

Needless to say, political brand activism could be risky, and a slippery slope, because the minute a brand takes a political side on something, they will marginalize consumers with an opposing view.

So it’s a calculated risk, but the truth is very if any brands can be everything to everyone, anyway, and it’s more important that brand marketers stand up for and reinforce values, because in this next wave of consumer marketing, great brands have an opportunity to lead, not follow.

If you ask me, that IS the new brand purpose. Even if your brand is My Pillow Guy.

4 comments about "Why Political Activism Will Be The New Brand Purpose".
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  1. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, September 27, 2021 at 8:46 a.m.

    The methodology for the study is pretty pathetic considering its global scale and there is a difference between "values" and political affiliation.  The study states people want brands to push certain values (i.e. climate change).  The study does not say that consumers wants brands to push political agendas or parties or "political activism" as Joe is trying to present it.

    On one hand, the study argues that consumers have little to no trust in the government, yet at the same time, Joe Mandese tries to make the argument that consumers want businesses to support and perpetuate polical agendas run by people they don't trust......hardly makes sense.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 27, 2021 at 9:21 a.m.

    This kind of research fascinates me. If I happen to love Joe Biden ---not true, by the way---and favored him over Trump in the last election---true, but without enthusiasm----will I refuse to buy a brand of tolilet  paper if it supports Trump?And how will I determine that the brand supports Trump? But how  many brands take public positions on politics? I suspect that the answer is not many. 

    Now, if I am vitally concerned about the Covid-19 epedemic and I think that the toilet paper brand feels the same way and says so in its ads---OK, maybe, that will be a deciding factor. But how often are such decisions made  based on perceived brand viewpoints? Indeed, what percent of brands make it clear in their ads and other promotions that they take a stance of issues like global warming,  getting vaccinated, saving the environment, etc.? I wonder if anyone has done a tally on that?

  3. PJ Lehrer from NYU, September 27, 2021 at 9:32 a.m.

    I have to admit that I have recently found myself struggling to include affiliations in my decision-making criteria.  Should I switch to AT&T, potentially a better service, but one who donates to the Treason Caucus?  How could I live with myself if I did?

    On the other hand, I am considering a side part.  

    Here's what my students have to say about Levi's versus Wranglers...

  4. Kevin McCollum from None, September 27, 2021 at 9:42 a.m.

    Personally, I think this is a bunch of malarkey.  Another instance of flawed studies.  I'd put stock in it if they took notes on what these survey participants felt about the various issues of the day, and then collected all the receipts of what they bought for the following month to see if their actions backed up their words.
    So, let me ask you, when you're standing in the asile trying to decide whether or not to buy Windex or Glass Plus, can you tell me where those two companies stand on climate change?  Racism?  Deforestation?  Abortion?
    I'll bet that upwards of 90% of consumers don't know (or won't bother to read the fine print on the label) that Windex is owned by SC Johnson, or that Glass Plus is owned by Reckitt Benckiser, much less what these companies stand for on politicial or social hot-button issues, unless the bottle is plastered with stickers reminding consumers of where they stand (heaven forbid - I'd rather read about how good the product is).  On top of that, I'm not sure that consumers really trust big corporations do what they espouse...
    I think brands are foolish to take up hot-button social issues, as they will likely grow brand loyalty with somewhere between 30% and 70% of their consumers, at the risk of pissing off the other 30% to 70%.  Great business model!
    Fine to work on issues that are squarely in a brand's purvue (such as Windex's use of ocean-bound plastic, even if I'm not 100% sure what that means).  Otherwise simply so the right thing within the four walls of your company and quit using your real (or sugar-coated) actions as a platform to tell us all how holier-than-thou you are...
    We would do well to also stop propogating shoddy studies that have very little correlation to real-world action.  Joe makes no secret of his political or social affiliation, so it make sense why he would want brands to jump on the suicidal political/social purpose bandwagon.

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