Cutting Through The Noise: What Brands Should Know About Social Issues

Conventional wisdom has long held that people want to work with businesses that reflect their values, and in a climate marked by profound turbulence, this presents unique challenges.  From the shock of a pandemic to increasingly fierce political partisanship and cultural divisiveness, it seems easier to trigger conflict than to find common ground.

It’s tough terrain for brands as they plan how -- or whether -- to communicate and act on their values, and better connect with people.

Do too much, the thinking goes, and potentially alienate customers. Do too little and risk looking noncommittal. Do something too cosmetic and get slammed for inauthenticity -- or worse, pandering. So, how can brands navigate sensitive social waters? A recent survey of U.S. consumers offers insight into their thinking and a way forward.

Tension between words and action. There’s underlying tension between what consumers say and what they do. Americans’ seeming desire for deeper social-justice commitment from brands contrasts with the current reality, in which most brands haven’t made that commitment. Why, then, aren’t customers abandoning brands that haven’t taken a stance?  



The easy answer is that not all causes matter equally. For example, consumers said they’re more passionate about companies taking stances on the environment (53%) than political causes (28%); and millennials care far more about human rights issues (68%) than older generations (42%).

But it goes much deeper.

Multidimensional values and expectations . Of course people aren’t defined by a single belief or issue. Despite differences, most Americans understand social issues are complex, and everyone occasionally -- inevitably -- makes compromises or sacrifices just to get through life in a highly interconnected, complex world.

This idea was echoed in survey responses:  Three out of five will give their favorite brands a break if they don’t take a stand on pivotal issues. This response may have something to do with deciphering the depth of brands’ convictions, as one in three Americans think the stands brands take are a marketing ploy. That’s the same number as those who think the stands are authentically motivated.

Focus on people, not the cause.  Brands should recognize the difference between a cause and the people who are impacted by that cause. The research found that Americans -- especially millennials (77%) -- want to work with brands that treat people with compassion in tough times. That’s more than twice as many who want to see brands take strong stands (31%). 

Importantly, people aren’t just “consumers,” they’re also employees; and how brands act on their values internally is also an expression of what they stand for. Consider that while fewer than 10% of companies took a recent stance on women’s reproductive rights, more than half addressed the topic with staff or planned to.

Walking the talk.  What truly matters today is a people-centered brand strategy. It’s the mark of authentically held values, and a business imperative. This makes sense -- no matter how dire our ever-spiraling conflicts may seem; all sides are comprised of… people.

Being an authentic brand isn’t a single event – it’s a process that involves consistent listening and thoughtful action that align with your core values. And that, in turn, drives revenue and long-term loyalty between your brand and those you serve.

1 comment about "Cutting Through The Noise: What Brands Should Know About Social Issues".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, January 19, 2023 at 1:55 a.m.

    "A recent survey of U.S. consumers offers insight into their thinking and a way forward." Please provide details on who conducted the survey, sample size etc.

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