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Generation Nation: The Politics That Tie and Bind the Most Divided Cohorts

Lifestages dictate individual behavior, but generations reflect unifying values and attitudes. This article helps marketers understand variations in how four American generations—Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers—perceive social and political actions taken by brands.

Editor’s Note: As the initial flurry of heated commentary about the Nike – Colin Kaepernick ad has receded, broader conclusions are being drawn about how brands should embrace controversial topics in their communications strategy.  Tim Hoskins and Michael Wood provide a thoughtful analysis of the sharp demographic differences they observed related to the Nike ad.  While it is tempting to say that through targeted distribution of messages, a brand can get the “right” message to the “right” group, at what point does the brand risk being seen as inauthentic as word gets out about their differentiated strategy?  Clearly, we are in the early stages of a new set of possibilities for advertising, and there is much still to figure out.


Growing up, were you an avid collector of 8-tracks, records, cassettes, CDs, mp3s, or playlists?

With that answer in hand, it is instantly apparent to which generation you belong — Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, or Boomer. People are significantly shaped by the era in which they are born. The technology that was available, the social and cultural events that took place, and the political actions that were taken while we were young impact who we are and how we react as consumers for life.

Should Brands Take a Stand?

Brands are increasingly wearing their politics on their sleeve. The CEO of Patagonia announced in a politically-tinged statement that the company is “giving away the $10 million in unplanned cash we saw as a result of last year’s irresponsible tax cut.” Expedia ran an ad during the 2017 US Presidential election that addressed racial prejudice. And of course, Nike ran an ad featuring ex-NFL player and current activist Colin Kaepernick who remains unsigned after kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and systematic oppression.

Why are brands doing this and how are the key generations reacting as a result? Together with generational research firm 747 Insights, Quester conducted a major study of more than 4000 Americans to find out.

According to “Generation Nation 2019,” a study available to subscribers, more than half of all consumers say they are loyal to companies that make sincere efforts to support causes they care about. Nearly 60% of Millennials and Gen Z care about where brands stand on ethical and political matters. On the other hand, less than 50% of Gen X and Boomers say the same.

Put another way, compared to 37% of Gen X and 45% of Boomers, only 17% of Gen Z and 25% of Millennials don’t want brands to take a stand on political and social issues. As the younger generations express more interest in ethical causes than Gen X and Boomers, brands have no choice but to pay attention.

The Nike-Colin Kaepernick Ad

In what is perhaps the most divisive and political action ever taken by a brand, Nike’s ad featuring ex-NFL player and current activist Colin Kaepernick turned up the heat on the debate. A generational divide among the arguers was exposed and the data confirms it.

While Boomers were relatively split when reflecting on the ad, the younger generations were more unified in their opinions. One third of Boomers (32%) had a negative reaction to the ad whereas 30% had a positive reaction. In comparison, 45% of Gen Z had a positive reaction and only 7% had a negative reaction. More importantly, 90% of those Gen Z who currently use Nike say it will have a reinforcing effect, and, if anything, lead to more sales for the brand. In fact, Nike’s stock surged by 5% in the two weeks after the ad aired, increasing in value by $6 billion.

Gen Z

According to “Generation Nation,” nearly 70% of Gen Z and 61% of Millennials support this form of protest, compared to only 53% of Gen X and 43% of Boomers. More broadly, we asked the four generations whether any athlete should have the right to protest at an athletic event. While 42% of Boomers supported the idea and 39% did not, 63% of Gen Z supported the idea and only 5% did not. The qualitative component of the research revealed Gen Z was simply nonplused about the ad and did not understand all the fuss.

“I think the reaction was a bit overdone. I understand that people didn’t agree with the choice but they didn’t have to boycott the brand. The reaction was blown way out of proportion.” – Gen Z

Millennials

Similar to Gen Z, Millennials are supportive of brands that reflect their political and social values. Of the 92% of Millennials who were current Nike users, only 17% indicated they would no longer buy Nike because of the controversial ad. For the other 83% of Millennial Nike-users, it either reinforced or enhanced their positive purchase intent for the brand. Where Gen Z is ambivalent about the ad, Millennials wear their passion for it on their Nike Dri-FIT™ sleeves. Millennials are less likely to focus on the brand and more likely to focus on the emotional and “inspiring” message the brand is sending.

“I like it a lot. It shows that Nike is siding with the side of justice. I also believe that the NFL has blacklisted Colin Kaepernick, which is morally wrong, for kneeling during the national anthem. This just makes me want to support the cause. Stand up against racial injustice.” – Gen Z

Gen X

When it comes to brands taking a stand, Gen X is where the line is drawn between “young” and “old.” Nearly a third of current Gen X Nike buyers (30%) feel they will buy Nike less often than they currently do, specifically because of the ad. And compared to Millennials who inhale inspiration while viewing the ad, Gen X take a more cynical view. It’s a cheap ploy, many Gen Xers believe. They feel Nike has inserted itself into a controversial issue to generate attention for themselves rather than solve the problem, or at least provide information about it. Some Gen Xers even pointed out that Nike executives donated more to Republican politicians who have demonized Kaepernick and that Nike has a spotty record of worker rights.

“Companies should stay out of politics. Nike has their opinion of this kneeling controversy, which they should. But they are doing nothing with this ad campaign except shaking the beehive, getting people all riled up again.” — Gen X

Boomers

As the oldest generation in this research, Boomers were most likely to find the situation distasteful. Less than half say their loyalty to a brand would be impacted by their supporting a cause they care about, and their reaction is more negative than positive. Of the 61% who currently buy Nike, 41% say they are less likely to purchase Nike in the future. They recognize a brand has the right to speak their mind, but Boomers recognize they have a right to shut their wallet. Many Boomers believe Kaepernick’s stance is disrespectful to the USA and he should find a different outlet for his protest, one that doesn’t interrupt an apolitical form of entertainment. Let’s not forget Boomers were young once. Many did their share of sit-ins and protests aimed at eradicating racism and discrimination, and are done with those activities now. They’ve made their contributions and want to settle down with their grandkids for some peace and quiet.

“Why would Nike want to use this platform with a questionable athlete? They could have come up with a better way to promote if they wanted to. There are other ways to promote diversity with advertising.” – Boomer

So what does this mean for marketers?  For those who want to connect with Boomers, a toned-down approach to political activism might be more effective. But for marketers whose audience includes younger generations, raise the protest signs. And for all generations, make sure your affiliation with social and political actions is genuine and authentic.

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Tim Hoskins and Michael Wood

President, Quester, 747 Insights