Read the Blog

Read Professor Moorman’s analysis of key survey results.

Big Brands and Political Activism: What Do Marketers Think?

Sep 14, 2018 |
CMO Survey Results

Brand political activism feels fresh and new in an era of pervasive social media and a president who never tires of Twitter. Companies that decades ago would have maintained a studied silence are now weighing in hard on issues ranging from gun violence to immigration and free speech, and they’re changing their strategy (marketing, sales, and lobbying) to match. Think of DICK’S Sporting Goods’ move to ban assault weapons after Nikolas Cruz (a customer) shot and killed his classmates in Parkland, Florida. Similarly, tech leaders Apple, Google, and Facebook came out swinging against Trump’s immigration ban, which targeted seven countries with Muslim-majority populations.

Now Nike, no stranger to political activism, joins the fray. The company just named Colin Kaepernick, the controversial former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, as the face of the 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” advertising campaign. Kaepernick, as most of the planet knows, is the football player who in 2016 “took a knee” to protest racial injustice when the U.S. national anthem played before the start of the team’s football games. Kaepernick not only faced public invective for his choice, but also ultimately lost his career when he wasn’t re-signed to an NFL team as a free agent. Adding nuance to Nike’s decision is the fact that Kaepernick is currently suing the NFL, a Nike partner, for collusion.

All of these decisions – by DICK’S, the tech giants, Kaepernick, and Nike – were made by brands, corporate and personal, that counted the cost of political activism and decided to stand for an important cause. These leaders hope that their political activism will help shape public opinion and potentially lead to lasting change, while simultaneously cementing their reputations as moral leaders and change agents. In addition, the companies hope to develop stronger ties with employees and customers, who are increasingly politically active themselves and expect the same of the brands they buy.

But what do marketers think? Marketers are charged with building brands and typically advocate caution when diving into the deep and turbulent waters of political activism. The most recent version of The CMO Survey, conducted last month, sought to quantify marketers’ perceptions about political activism. We asked 324 marketers the question: “Do you believe it is appropriate for your brand to take a stance on politically charged issues?”

The answer was a thundering no. Only 21.4% believed their brands should take a stand (up from 17.4% six months ago, before DICK’S decision). Additional results include:

  • Marketers at mid-sized companies ($500M to $999M) are the most willing to be politically active, with 50% saying they would take the plunge. Small companies are the least willing, with only 17.1% agreeing. Corporate giants (>$10B) are in-between, with 23.5% agreeing to take a stance.
  • Marketers at companies with a larger ecommerce operation (more than 10% sales) are more willing to take a stance (28.9% said yes) than those with no ecommerce sales (22.5%) or small ecommerce operations (1-10%), of which only 12.8% said yes.
  • Finally, B2C-services companies (like DICK’s) are more willing to be politically active (26.9% said yes), followed by B2C-product companies, like Nike (23.1% said yes). Compare this to B2B-service companies at 21.6% and B2B product companies at 14.8%.

To explore this issue further, we asked marketers why they adopted their positions. Those who said they would weigh into the political arena would do so first and foremost because of social leadership:

  • It shows their company cares about more than making profits (75.8%)
  • It has a positive effect on the company’s ability to attract and retain customers and partners (69.7%)
  • It bolsters the company’s ability to attract and retain employees (69.7%)
  • It boosts the company’s ability stand out in the market (51.5%)

Those that said no worried most about the bottom line. These marketers were unwilling to take a stance because they feared doing so:

  • Would have a negative effect on the company’s ability to attract and retain customers and partners (67.8%)
  • Would make the company stand out in the marketplace in a way that was unwanted (59.5%)
  • Demonstrated that the company was wasting resources on non-core business activities (52.1%)
  • Would have a negative effect on the company’s ability to attract and retain employees (37.2%)

These data show that marketers understand the tradeoffs and, thus far, are more concerned about the negatives than the opportunity to make a difference. I hope this changes. Brands are critical vehicles of meaning in our world and taking a leadership role is a natural step for these powerful cultural agents that can influence commerce and community life.

So should companies get politically active with their brands all the time? Probably not. If so, their actions may, in fact, lose their punch when consumers stop paying attention. Instead, political activism is an issue-by-issue, moment-by-moment decision that is not only conscience-led, but brand-aligned. The tone that brands adopt must be true to the brand and make sense to consumers, especially when key messages come from CEOs themselves. Once brands wade in, they also must also play the long game, as members of the public hate hypocrisy and skewer offenders on social media. Our advice: Jump in authentically when you can be a heavyweight and stay put to make a difference.

So how did our brands do?

DICK’S move to discontinue assault weapon sales seemed emotionally driven, according to an interview with CEO Edward Stack, who hit his message just right as an anguished citizen. DICK’S got an initial traffic surge on the news and share prices are up around 20% since. Fears about alienating some customers may have kept it from going all-in on making a statement on gun ownership—despite the facts that the political tide is changing and families with children are assuredly a more important customer demographic than buyers of assault weapons, a niche category.

Among the tech giants, standing up for Muslim immigration makes good moral and business sense, as their customers are global, and their talent pool is both multi-cultural and engaged. However, Google and Facebook had also accepted millions in anti-immigration ad dollars, and that news was reported after they had lobbied for change. As a result, they lost the shiny halo of moral virtue and likely created confusion, suspicion, and mistrust in the minds of customers, partners, and employees. Facebook, of course, has continued to take it on the chin for data privacy abuses, which while not related, seems to reinforce the view that the company drives for dollars at the expense of its ethics.

So what about Kaepernick? In signing him, leaders at Nike knew that they were engaging with a fully committed, but deeply polarizing figure with more detractors than fans. A recent survey found that 53% of Americans felt it was “never appropriate” to protest causes by kneeling during the national anthem.

The day of the announcement, Nike stock fell 3.17%. Irate customers also posted videos of themselves burning Nike products with the hashtag #JustBurnIt (a play on the Nike campaign’s famed hashtag #JustDoIt).

Pundits are divided on the Nike decision, with some seeing it as just the type of risky decision a big, but flagging, brand needs to make to regain cultural relevance, and others seeing nothing but pain ahead. It will be interesting to see if investor pessimism and Americans’ passion for patriotism translates to a brief economic spanking for Nike or a long-term wallet windfall. Either way, the Nike partnership with Kaepernick will make for a great case study and new insights into how big brands pursue political activism in an age of constant controversy. We’ll stay tuned and continue to explore this issue in future issues of The CMO Survey.

Conducted biannually, The CMO Survey® is sponsored by the American Marketing Association, Deloitte, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. It is the longest-running survey of its kind.

Click here to participate in The CMO Survey.

Holly Larson contributed to this article.