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How Should Brands Navigate the Social Issue Landscape?

Brands need to stay on top of social issues if they want to appeal to social zeitgeists, but must understand not only what issues are trending but also the level of divisiveness if they want to remain in good standing with their customers.

I recently stumbled on an article in AdAge that felt incredibly timely to me given some of the recent work I have been doing at Invoke. The article talks about how some brands (namely, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Hyundai) are showcasing their efforts to align with social issues in spots for the Super Bowl this Sunday. Specifically, Hyundai will be focusing on its Hope On Wheels organization’s fight against childhood cancer and AB InBev will be doubling down on their efforts with two spots (for Budweiser and Stella Artois) focused on relief efforts and water shortages.

I found this timely because I am actually in the midst right now of releasing results from an Invoke Live session we just ran that talked about social issues and how brands should or should not align with them. The webinar where we analyzed this data in real-time can be viewed here.

Authenticity is important

The article focuses on how brands might respond to the social climate by releasing issue/philanthropy-focused ads. One section of the article features a quote from Jay Porter, President of Edelman – “…if it’s an authentic and deeply rooted connection to the cause or the specific organization, it’s a great storytelling moment…” This speaks directly to some findings I unearthed in the session.

73% of consumers think brands are associating more with social issues these days. However, while some do see this as altruistic in nature there are others that say motivations are purely business or press-related:

“Some see it as a selling tool. Get on board with a social issue and the side of the majority to make themselves look good and generate a higher customer base.” (Male, Millennial, Independent)

In addition, when asked what brands make sense to align with social issues, some do note brands that align inherently with the cause they support make the most sense. “The obvious example would be, for example, a pet food company, supporting animal rights,” says one consumer.  This suggests a need for perceived authenticity.

Identifying hot-button issues only tells part of the story

Among other findings, the session highlighted that just because a social issue is trending or hot-button doesn’t necessarily mean a brand should pursue it. Gun Control, for example, is an issue brands may want to steer clear of from a business perspective. Nearly 2/3 of consumers are talking about Gun Control regularly, making it one of the most discussed issues, and 78% find the issue important to them, but only 41% say they would like it overall if a brand associated itself with Gun Control. And while Democrats are more likely than Republicans to see Gun Control as an important issue, they both show a similar lack of desire to have brands associate with this issue.

And that’s just focusing on the general issue. If we look at stances, the issue gets even harder to navigate. Overall, 50% of consumers say they would like if a brand associated with social issues but even among those that say they would like it, many note a dependence on that brand sharing their views on the issue.

To take this back down to a specific issue, consider Gun Control again. While 63% of Democrats and 75% of Millennials are for more Gun Control, 50% of Republicans and 43% of Non-Millennials are against more Gun Control. Therefore, an issue with such polarizing views as Gun Control may be one brands should avoid or at least go into knowing full well they could alienate potential consumers or customers.

Looking for issues that unite rather than divide

The AdAge article makes a point that was illuminated in this research as well – to focus on issues that, according to a quote in the article, “everyone can rally around.”  Fighting cancer and donating water are issues that don’t really have too many opponents.

But what we also wanted to know if there were any hot-button issues that would unite consumers across segments. One issue that rose to the top as a unifying issue is Sexual Harassment. As you can see in the quadrant below, Sexual Harassment is the one issue out of the five most important issues identified by consumers in this session that scores high on both being discussed frequently and an appealing issue with which brands should associate.

The Social Issue/Brand Quadrant – Discussion and Association



And the majority of respondents across segments agree this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Overall, 90% of consumers say this. Democrats are more likely to say this than Republicans (100% vs. 83%) but regardless, this remains a majority in both parties.

It all comes down to the right questions

So yes, brands should consider Sexual Harassment a social issue they can get behind without fear of much backlash from their consumers. Right now, at least. Sexual Harassment is top-of-mind because the story is still unfolding. The #MeToo hashtag as a way to spread awareness of Sexual Harassment is less than 4 months old and with the Oscars just around the corner, it probably will remain a popular topic of discussion for a while now.

But eventually, the attention on Sexual Harassment will wane and consumers, for better or for worse, are a fickle bunch. Brands need to stay on top of these social issues if they want to appeal to the social zeitgeist, understanding not only what issues are top-of-mind but also the level of divisiveness if they want to remain in good standing with their base.

Enjoy the game – Go Patriots!

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