The Middle Lane

The strong showing by conservative political parties in recent E.U. parliamentary elections is yet another sign of an ongoing shift in people’s sentiment and sympathies. That matters for the intersection of brands and politics.

Several U.S. pundits have asserted that a conservative turn is underway in the dominant cultural ethic. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen cites electoral reversals for blue candidates in blue state strongholds, a measured shift in political views among immigrants and minorities, and the loss of leading progressive voices due to the retirement of aging faculty at universities.

New York Times columnist David Brooks postulates that what’s going on now is the watering down that always occurs of radical activism into a thinner soup of corporate catchphrases and cultural fripperies.



Economist and blogger Noah Smith has argued on several occasions that the prevailing social tenor is fast becoming less tolerant of unrest and more conservative in outlook. Smith likens this to what happened in the 1980s following the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

One bit of data cited by Smith is the change in attitudes about policing reported by Pew. In 2021, the percentage favoring a decrease in police funding — a cause célèbre following the May 2020 George Floyd incident — dropped dramatically from 2020. Among African Americans and Democrats, the 2020 plurality favoring a funding decrease flipped in 2021 to a plurality favoring an increase.

The next generation is showing signs of shifting this way, as well, confounding the prevailing stereotype. A recent survey by Stanford researchers found a sizable year-over-year drop in interest for ESG funds among investors 41-and-under, with less willingness to sacrifice returns for values. A July 2023 CNBC survey found only 32% in total feel it’s appropriate for brands to take social stands. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, it was higher at 43%, yet way down from 62% in 2018 and 70% in 2019 for this age group.

This shift is not an embrace of far-right politics or hardliners, notwithstanding this past weekend’s superior showing by hard-right conservatives in France and a small but noteworthy surge in Germany. The dominant party in the E.U. Parliament -- the center-right European’s People Party -- gained a few seats. And even though liberal parties lost seats to conservative parties, majority control will remain with a coalition of centrist groups.

Similarly, a mid-year New York Times assessment of national elections occurring around the world this year found that while conservative incumbents have fared well, voters have pulled back from giving more authority and political control to right-wing leaders and governments.

In other words, for the most part it looks as if people are moving to the center, not quashing left-wing activism in favor of right-wing authoritarianism. It’s a rightward correction more than a turn to the right.

The extreme events of the past few years have kindled a desire for balance. The 2024 U.S. MONITOR reports a “selfward” turn among consumers, with more interest in self-care and less about the world at-large.

Consumers want better brands not social brands. Kantar U.S. MONITOR found a few years back that eight in ten agreed, “Brands should focus on providing the product or service they are meant to deliver instead of getting involved in social issues.” Brands are better when they improve at their commercial mission, not when they take a stance on politics. Purpose is good; activism, not so much.

The paradox, though, is that brand growth requires the social value of inclusivity. Brands cannot get big unless they are built on the cross-cutting potential of solving problems for everyone. The biggest brands do this as a matter of course, as evidenced by their success in attracting people of all politics and persuasions. Brands segment, of course, but not by rallying people with wedge issues or partisan provocations.

People must be able to "see" themselves in a brand. Kantar U.S. MONITOR finds the vast majority want brands that align with their values.

It takes culture for consumers to see an alignment and to feel an emotional connection. But these days, culture often comes with political controversy. And controversy is no friend of brands.

Which circles back to the pitfall of politics. Sentiment is trending away from the decade-long spike in divisive, activist politics that followed the financial crisis. Brands must exercise more caution and prudence. Be inclusive, but without provocation and with more universality of meaning, relevance and appeal.

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