Cutting Through the Noise: What Brands Need to Know About Social Issues

11.18.22

For years, conventional wisdom in business has held that people want to work with organizations that share or reflect their values. There’s plenty of evidence for this, in survey after survey, but this trend takes on new meaning and weight in a contemporary climate marked by profound turbulence. From the social and economic shock of a pandemic to increasingly fierce political partisanship to the cultural divisiveness in our media and on our streets, it seems far easier to find people who disagree with us than it is to find those with whom we share common ground.

It’s difficult terrain for brands to negotiate as they plan how – or even whether – to communicate and act on their values, and better connect with people who share them.

Do too much, the thinking goes, and you may alienate potential customers. Do too little and you look noncommittal, which could cause customers to dismiss you for not taking a stand. Do something that feels too cosmetic and get slammed for being performative or inauthentic. The last thing any brand wants is to be viewed as one that patronizes or panders to its customers. So, how can brands navigate these sensitive and dangerous social waters? A recent survey of US consumers conducted by Gongos offers some insight into consumer thinking and a way forward for brands.

The Tension Between Words and Action

There’s an underlying tension between what we’re hearing from consumers and what’s happening on the business landscape. In our survey and others, Americans have made it abundantly clear today that they want a deeper social-justice commitment from brands.

But that seeming desire contrasts with the current reality, which shows that most brands haven’t made deeper social-justice commitments. So, if people have these expectations, why aren’t they abandoning brands that haven’t taken a stance on complex social issues?

The easy answer is that while there are issues people feel strongly about overall, the reality is not everyone shares the same beliefs, and not all causes matter equally. For example, consumers told Gongos they’re more passionate about companies taking stances on human rights issues and the environment (52%) than they are about political causes (28%). Our results also confirm the well- documented existence of age-related differences; Millennials are far more likely than older generations to care about human rights and the environment (68% vs. 43%).

But it goes much deeper than that.

The Multidimensionality of Values and Expectations

People, of course, aren’t defined by one belief or a single issue. Despite our differences, most Americans understand that our social issues are complex, and we all occasionally – inevitably – make compromises or sacrifices just to get through our lives and jobs in a highly interconnected, complex world.

This is echoed in what people told us: 3 out of 5 are willing to cut their favorite brands a break, or say it wouldn’t bother them, if they don’t take a stand during tough times. It may have something to do with deciphering the depth of brands’ convictions: as many Americans (1 in 3) think the stands that brands take are authentically motivated as those who think it’s a marketing ploy.

Importantly, Millennials are part of this pattern. Nearly half, for instance, tell us they would stop using a brand that doesn’t align with their political beliefs. That’s substantial – but it also means that more than half, to some degree, feel differently.

Focus on People, Not on the Cause

For brands trying to chart a course through our current turbulence, it’s important to separate the idea of a public stance from concrete action; there’s a difference between a cause and the people who are impacted by the forces that launched that cause. In our study, we see the clear message that Americans – especially Millennials (77%) – want to work with brands that treat people with compassion when things get tough. That’s more than twice as many (31% overall) who want to see brands take a strong stand and stick to it.

Importantly, those numbers apply not only to brands’ customers, but their employees as well. People aren’t just “consumers,” of course, they’re also employees; and the ways that brands act on their values internally are also an expression of what they really stand for. Consider that while less than 10% of companies took a stance on women’s reproductive rights following the landmark Dobbs decision, more than half addressed the topic with staff or planned to. For leaders wondering how to respond to a crisis of the day, then, the answer isn’t always to look outside their window to gauge a response – it also means listening carefully within their own walls.

Walking the Talk

While our research suggests some room between what people expect from the values brands express on pressing issues and what they’re actually willing to accept, it’s important that those results tell us where people’s heads and hearts are today. With the younger Millennial and Gen Z generations poised to take greater power socially and economically, we may soon be seeing the bar move higher for how brands express and act on values. It’s essential for brands to continue following this area and ensure that they’re meeting these groups where they are.

But what does truly matter today – and is likely to continue far into the future with people of all ages – is a brand strategy that’s people-centered. It’s the mark of authentically held values, and a business imperative. It makes sense: no matter how dire our ever-spiraling conflicts may seem; all sides are comprised of… people.

If brands can be authentic in everything they do, as well as everything they communicate to customers, then “fire-response” event-driven communication becomes almost unnecessary. True authenticity from brands will generate greater awareness just from their loyal consumer base, and disseminate the values for which the brand stands for using the twenty-first-century word-of-mouth that is social media.

Being an authentic brand is not a single event. It’s a process. It involves consistent messaging and decisive action, as well as customer engagement that’s more people-centered than profit-centered. When leaders stop and listen to the voices inside their own walls, the resulting actions will align with the core values of that organization and present a more authentic self to the outside world. And in turn, understanding your stakeholders’ values will grow your bottom line and drive long-term loyalty between your brand and those you serve.