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Marketing and Comms
Brands Can Play a Unique Role in Bridging Cultural Divides

We tested whether brand-facilitated conversations could decrease the polarization of opinions — and our findings indicate they can.

As culture wars continue to heat up, companies are having second thoughts about choosing sides in divisive social issues — according to recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal. But new research suggests brands have a third option to consider.

Following the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the death of George Floyd, and the COVID pandemic, progressives turned up the heat on companies to support marginalized communities. Since then, many brands have spoken out on everything from racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights to abortion rights, immigration and other hot-button topics. (Some companies took even more heat after putting out messages that were judged to be exploitative or tone deaf.)

Now, it seems, the pendulum has swung. The rise of conservative, anti-woke and anti-ESG sentiment means some companies fear losing customers or employees regardless of what they choose to say or do. As a result, executives are working to further mature their decision-making processes for when to weigh in on divisive issues and when to stay quiet, according to WSJ. But the article doesn’t mention another option for which brands are uniquely suited — convening discussions that help heal social division.

Testing brand influence on person-to-person interactions

Research has shown that people perceive brand preferences, like other preferences, as reflections of personal values. The assumption of shared values is likely one reason that brand communities are often considered friendly, welcoming spaces. Yet, unlike many other preferences for hobbies or activities, brands actually attract people with widely diverse demographic and psychographic characteristics.

It’s not uncommon for two people to love the same brand but disagree on social issues, which is why Columbia Business School (CBS) professor Gita Johar and I studied how brand preferences affect people’s willingness to engage in conversations about divisive issues.

In a series of tests supported by the Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics at CBS, we first confirmed that people do in fact assume others who share their brand preferences also share similar personal values — such as an interest in healthy living or environmentalism — even when the brands involved are not inherently activist or political. Then, we tested whether people were more likely to discuss a divisive topic if they were told their discussion partners shared their preferences for particular brands. Specifically, we found that people were more willing to discuss the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage when they were told they would be discussing it with someone who shared their preference in car brands.

This finding builds on earlier research that identified one of the biggest barriers to initiating controversial discussions is a person's anticipation of disagreement. In other words, when people think someone is likely to disagree with them, they are generally less willing to have a conversation. Therefore, it makes sense that people who assume shared values with a fellow brand loyalist would feel more at ease discussing a potentially divisive topic with that person.

Surprisingly, though, we found this effect to be stronger than the effect of demographic similarity — even though demographic similarity (unlike brand preference) actually does correlate with shared social ideas; and people are generally more willing to discuss divisive topics with people of their own demographic groups.

Next, we tested whether brand-facilitated conversations could decrease the polarization of opinions — and our findings indicate they can. We asked strangers to discuss the issue of phasing out gasoline-powered cars and found that generally these conversations helped decrease differences in opinions. What is fascinating, however, is that for those who believed their conversation partners shared a brand preference (in this instance, fast food), the differences in opinions decreased even more than when they had no information about brand preferences.

Brands as bridge builders

At a time when social divisions seem deeper than ever, our research suggests brands could play an influential role in bridging the divides. Brand loyalty has the potential to overcome differences in demographic backgrounds and experiences that often keep people separated from one another.

"Many executives say quietly they are tired of being pulled into divisive topics and would prefer to avoid them,” the WSJ article states. “But many said it is unrealistic for a company to say it will never comment on a social or political matter." It does seem unrealistic that brands can avoid engaging in today’s heated social and political landscapes, but engagement — like many social and political issues — might not be an all or nothing choice. A third option could be to create welcoming spaces that draw people out of their usual media bubbles or echo chambers to meet and gain new perspectives.

Heineken’s Worlds Apart campaign was a proof of concept for brands in this role of social bridge builders. The beer maker was praised in 2017 for showing how strangers with opposing views on climate change, transgender rights and feminism could find common ground over drinks. Now imagine what could happen if brand marketers scaled that concept with purpose among their brand communities.

The Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics recently published a two-page brief about the new research for interested brand practitioners.

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