Sonia Seung-Eun Kim
Published 2 weeks ago.
About a 5 minute read.
As culture wars continue to heat up, companies are having second thoughts about
choosing sides in divisive social
— according to recent
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
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
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,
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.
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
Unlock customer insights on sustainability & your brand’s unique performance! Submit your brand (or any brand) into the 2024 annual study and receive unparalleled insights on customer perception of that brand’s performance. Benchmark how your customers rate your brand on social and environmental sustainability and overall brand trust, while seeing how your brand compares to others in the study. Space is limited! The deadline to become part of the study is January 15, 2024.
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
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
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
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.
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
about the new research for interested brand practitioners.
Published Nov 17, 2023 8am EST / 5am PST / 1pm GMT / 2pm CET