For all the stock that brands and their agencies put on the value of consumer mentions in social media, it actually ranks relatively low among the modes of communication people use to express their sentiment about brands to others. At least when it comes to one of what likely is one of the most sensitive areas of brand communications: political affiliations.
That's the finding of a fascinating -- and especially timely -- study from Engagement Labs, which this morning released an in-depth report on the role brands take, or do not take, on political issues.
The report -- "Brand Marketing Amid Political Polarization" -- is based on two years of data tracking consumer conversations and sentiment expressed utilizing Engagement Labs' proprietary methodology for 500 brands, many of which fall on various ends of the political spectrum.
Its top conclusion -- that "it is probably wise for the biggest brands to avoid taking sides on political issues" -- runs contrary to a wide number of tracking studies from leading consumer research organizations that consumers now expect brands to take explicit positions on important social issues, especially ESG (environmental, social and governance) and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).
But it does raise important questions about brands that come out as explicitly politically partisan during a time of extreme political polarization, in the U.S. as well as much of the rest of the world.
Engagement Labs did not disclose the relative base of consumers utilized in its methodology, but its method provides some interesting new insights about the value of consumer communication channels as it relates to brand conversations by party affiliation, especially the relatively low value of social media vs. more direct, interpersonal forms such as face-to-face communication, phone calls or text-based conversations.
"Social media does not predict offline conversation," the report asserts, noting: "Both Republicans and Democrats communicate about brands face-to-face much more often than through electronic modes of communications, a fact we’ve measured consistently for more than a decade.
"In fact, about two-thirds of all brand conversations happen face-to-face, nearly two decades after the launch of Twitter and Facebook. This is why marketers can’t assume that measuring social media conversations alone will provide the insights they need about consumer conversations, which can vary quite a lot between online and offline. There is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, but not a large one. Republicans are more reliant than Democrats on the traditional form of communication: 69% of all their consumer conversations happen face-to-face, compared to 63% among Democrats."
It's not just the overwhelming weight of face-to-face conversations, but the relative sentiment value, according to the study, which found face-to-face was the only communications mode to index above 50 on net sentiment value. Social media ranked lowest with a net sentiment score of 36.
Overall, the study found Republican consumers index slightly higher in face-to-face conversations, while Democratic consumers index higher in phone and digital conversations about brands. Democratic consumers also index much higher than Republicans in terms of the total number of conversations they have about brands each week.
In terms of the relative ranking of specific brands ranked by consumer party affiliation, there are some surprising and some not-so-surprising findings, including the fact that there is only a one-point difference in the net sentiment of the Nike brand between Republicans (71 net sentiment) and Democrats (70).
Even a brand like Bud Light, which would seem to be highly polarized following the backlash surrounding its use of trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, shows only a six-point net sentiment difference between Republicans (52) and Democrats (58).
"Sometimes brands will see an opportunity to proactively show support or gain attention by engaging on a controversial issue, as Bud Light did for Pride Month in 2023," the report notes. "In past years, many brands have gained positive attention for supporting Pride Month, with little backlash, including Bud Light, as we reported in 2019. Another successful example is Nike hiring Colin Kaepernick and supporting racial justice in 2019, which ultimately turned out well for the brand according to our research. In a dynamic and ever-changing landscape – the environment has changed. Increasing polarization probably requires that decisions to engage on hot button issues need to be made higher-up in an organization and should involve upfront research and analysis."
In terms of the most polarized top brands vis a vis each party's consumer affiliations, see top 20 rankings for Republicans and Democrats below: