The 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study suggests that we are entering an era when you can look into someone’s shopping cart and ascertain his or her ideological positions based on the brands you see there.
The criteria that drive consumer purchasing decisions are becoming more politicized. Sometimes, to a greater extent than quality or price, ideology influences which brands we buy. As a result, new purchasing considerations are gaining in importance, such as a brand’s history of social policy involvement or its positions on key social issues
The ideological impact on brand choice may be more politically-oriented in populist hotspots or in places reacting to the extreme populist policies of other countries (such as Mexicans boycotting U.S. products because of Trump and “the wall”); in other markets, it may be based on religious issues or nationalist sentiment. Also, belief-driven buying is not a right- or left-leaning tendency, nor is it necessarily anti-establishment.
To get some indication of where the frontier of ideological purchasing might be — the tipping point where the phenomenon goes from mainstream-ish to fringe — we asked two “agree-or-disagree” questions: “it is unpatriotic to buy or support certain brands” and “it is a sin to buy or support certain brands.” About a quarter of our respondents agreed with those statements. Among those who self-identified as belief-driven buyers, that number went up to over four in 10. Rather than defining the boundaries of ideology in the marketplace, the sin question begged for a follow-up: “Cardinal or venial?”
This data made it clear that people no longer judge purchasing decisions simply along dimensions of smartness or good value. A consumer’s choices are now the target of moral evaluation and a litmus test of loyalty and love of country. The shopping cart is becoming an ideological war zone, a place where proxy political, nationalism and social values battles will be waged. Brands will be the focal points of these battles, sometime purposefully and sometimes despite their best attempts to remain neutral.
The natural inclination of many brands, especially those that lack an activist pedigree or market leaders focused on protecting market share, might be to ask themselves: “Why rock the boat?” The simple answer is that silence is no longer a conservative, low-risk prerogative. Forty-seven percent of consumers said that these days it is impossible for brands to avoid taking a stand on important social issues because their customers who are affected by the issue will demand that they do.
Stonewalling in the face of these demands is not a viable strategy. Sixty-five percent of self-identified belief-driven buyers have stopped buying a brand solely because it remained silent on a controversial societal or political issue they believed it had an obligation to publicly address.
That said, brands are not expected to weigh in on every issue. And more importantly, consumers draw a distinction between taking a stand on important societal issues and partisan politics. Brands should not become aligned with political parties or specific candidates. Instead, they need to step up and fill the gaps left by other social institutions, including political parties, that have largely failed to make people feel empowered, protected and optimistic about the future.
The brands that succeed in this environment will be the ones that take a stand without being forced, pick issues that are highly relevant to their business, and go all in. Brands that will lose and wind up in what we call No Brand’s Land — a dangerous place of consumer indifference — will be the ones that fail to put skin in the game in their support of an issue or that attempt to opt out altogether.
David M. Bersoff, Ph.D. is Head of Thought Leadership Research, based in our New York office.