Woke brands and enduring customer values

New business Opinion Trends

Maria Twigge, Research Director at FlexMR, considers the true impact of politically and socially charged marketing campaigns on brand loyalty.

Brands have evolved strategies to earn a place in consumers’ hearts by learning how to tell stories, how to have emotional impact and form enduring connections. What appears to be the latest trend in effective advertising now also taps into a consumer’s values, politics and social culture. There is much discussion about brands weighing in on social and political issues, raising valid questions about whether commercial organisations have a place talking about social good.

Yet the idea that a brand, a commercially-driven conglomerate, has an influence on political and social beliefs leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. When I first heard about the new Gillette advert, for example, (which I read many comments on before I actually watched), my gut response was a little repulsion. I did not want a brand to so openly and transparently inhabit this space. I was just about to chime in with the rest and post my own comments online, when I thought that I should really see the ad for myself first.

The message, the actions, the behaviours demonstrated in that ad – they all fit so well with my values and my belief system that my response was pure love; emotional activation and real admiration. Perhaps there is a case to be made about the execution, but the message fit so tightly with my deep-held beliefs and my identity that it made me happy. It turns out that I am, despite my initial wariness, willing to be preached to by a brand if the message appeals to my core values. But does this stand true for the rest of the UK audience?

FlexMR recently conducted a survey with 1,280 UK voters to explore the influence of tribes (or groups) in the UK, looking at loyalty through the lens of political, social and purchasing decisions.

The intersection of politics and consumerism

Loyal customers feel they have a long term connection and a mutual trust between them and the brands they buy from. Yet, loyalty seems to be a more challenging behaviour to capture in these times of overwhelming product choices. In 2015, it was reported by Forbes that 90% of the top CPG brands saw a decline in market share on categories that were consistently low growth. It could be argued that consumer packaged goods are the easiest type of product for customers to switch brands for as they are regular low-cost purchases. But our survey suggests that consumers are influenced by the tribes they belong to just as much for high investment decisions such as banking providers as they are for buying cereal.

Some authors cite a need for innovation, a shift in consumer desires and a general trend towards “openness to the new, different and novel” as the main reason for this lack of loyalty. However our recent research suggests loyalty and openness to the new are not opposite behaviours and are two traits certain groups – such as Remain voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum – are more pre-disposed to than others. The study we conducted measured loyalty by asking how long a customer would give a brand to remedy poor service issues. Those who voted Remain are 13% more likely to give a brand more than 6 months to rectify mistakes and yet also 24% more likely to actively seek out new brands and experiences. Therefore there is another influence on both brand loyalty and openness to the new.

The key difference between a Remain voter and a Leave voter was how they create a sense of self. Remain voters were 47% more likely to state that their opinions on social issues were important to their identity and 36% more likely to state political beliefs were important too. They also told us that they would vote the same way in a second referendum and that they vote consistently for the same party in general and local elections.

Leavers were 33% more likely to change their vote or abstain from making one than Remainers and 78% more likely to have voted for multiple parties in the past. So perhaps Leave voters can be characterised drifting voters, less connected to any one party or position and less prone to political loyalty. Our research suggests that this disconnected quality echoes across all spheres of their lives as they do not have the same propensity to integrate their political and social decisions into their self-identity.

We now start to see the value of permeating group narratives for brands for the more loyal group. The Leave voters are less likely to trust news and media sources and 20% do not actively follow political events. They are less trusting than Remainers and this means softer factors (e.g. recyclable packaging, pledges to support NGO’s, stances on moral issues) have less influence on their purchasing decisions and utilitarian factors such as price are a bigger driver of behaviour.

What this all suggests is that there is significant interplay between the way we vote, the values we hold and the products that we purchase, and understanding political leanings and social values is really valuable for brands who seek to foster enduring relationships with customers.

The challenge of identity

So, for those who integrate political and social values into their self-identity there is definitely a place for brands with a political message or stance to take and some potential benefit to stepping out there. These political and social values are much more closely tied to identity and therefore more stable and less influenced by external factors. Overall, most will claim that they don’t care about brands taking a stand, but Remain voters (who are more tied to their beliefs) are 22% more likely to take action against a brand that is negatively influencing the world around them. So perhaps the real danger that lurks is in fact not to communicate your organisation’s social and political beliefs and face a consumer rebellion or boycott.

Previous research has found loyalty-proneness to be a significant factor in brand loyalty. Our findings suggest that applying political knowledge helps identify those that have a propensity to become loyal customers and also the types of social and moral messages that they will respond to.

Politics and social values in the UK are a slightly more sensitive topic to navigate than pure purchase preference and brand affinity; the recent Nike/Colin Kaepernick campaign hasn’t given an immediate uplift in sales but has generated an estimated $43 million worth of exposure for the brand. Brands need to really know their customers well, with a deeper, more holistic knowledge of customer’s political preferences and self-identity brands can understand which audiences to target and measure the long term impact, tracking this back to stand out campaigns with strong social messages.