More Consumers Want Brands and CEOs to Get Political

Retail & e-commerce analyst Claire Tassin explores the catch-22 brands face when choosing to speak out on issues that are relevant to some of their customers but could alienate others
Graphic featuring shopper making a purchase in a store
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Ashley Berry
May 11, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • The share of shoppers who think companies should avoid speaking out on sociopolitical issues has declined 6 percentage points in two years. For CEOs, this sentiment declined 9 points in the same period.

  • Consumers’ increasing expectation that brands will take proactive positions also raises the stakes for brands that are considering whether to make a public statement or stay quiet on particular issues.

  • Brands must invest in strong customer research to identify issues that are consistently important to their base or lean into stances with broad appeal, while bearing in mind that reputational risk is much more likely than the risk of boycotts.

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After years of dialed-up activity from brands as they commented on sociopolitical issues in the United States, consumers have come to expect more from brands. While inflation has dampened most consumers’ ability and willingness to boycott (and “buycott”) brands according to their values, that doesn’t mean consumers aren’t paying attention and adjusting their perceptions of brands accordingly. Fewer people think brands and CEOs should stay out of the fray compared with two years ago, and a plurality (40%) now believe brands should get involved when issues relate to their business interests.

Making statements and policy adjustments — either proactive or reactive — still has considerable reputational upside and downside. Consumers have higher expectations of companies and their leadership, but at the same time, compared with two years ago, fewer consumers believe brands are becoming more ethical and accountable.

Consumers have higher expectations that brands and CEOs will speak out on social issues than they did two years ago

The share of consumers who think brands and their CEOs should stay in their lane and not comment on or get involved with sociopolitical issues has declined over the last two years. Brands’ taking a political stance has become more commonplace, and consumers have come to expect companies — particularly their CEOs — to weigh in on issues related to their business.

Consumers Increasingly Believe Companies and CEOs Should Take a Stand on Issues Impacting Their Business

Share of U.S. adults who said companies and CEOs should …
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Surveys conducted Feb. 22-24, 2021, and Feb. 24-26, 2023, among representative samples of roughly 2,200 U.S. adults each, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Younger, nonwhite and Democratic consumers are most likely to say brands and CEOs should actively communicate their stances. Around a third of Gen Zers and millennials (31% and 35%, respectively) said brands should play an active role in sociopolitical issues, while just 20% of baby boomers share the same view. 

In contrast, 36% of white consumers said brands should focus on their product or service and not get involved in political, cultural or social issues, the highest share of any race or ethnicity surveyed. For comparison, just 19% of Black Americans said the same.

Political ideology is of course an important variable here as well. Surprisingly, though, Republicans, Democrats and Independents were equally likely to agree that companies should only get involved in issues that relate directly to their business. The divide is more apparent in beliefs about whether companies should take a stand on issues that don’t immediately impact their business: Just 19% of Republicans said they should, compared with 37% of Democrats. A plurality of Republicans believe brands should stay out of sociopolitical issues entirely, though even that has moderated over the last two years: 56% of Republicans said in 2021 that companies should not get involved, compared with 42% today. 

This increases the complexity for brands when determining which issues are appropriate to take a stand on when customers with opposing views expect a response. Republicans are less likely to boycott than Democrats, but reputational risk persists. 

Consumers believe companies are still becoming more political, but are plateauing on ethical improvements

In February 2021, more than half (58%) of consumers said corporations had become more political in recent years; 47% agreed that corporations had become more diverse and inclusive. Those numbers are nearly identical two years later, meaning that consumers believe companies are becoming increasingly political as well as diverse. 

On the other hand, consumers in 2023 are less likely to say corporations have become more ethical, responsible, charitable and accountable for their actions in recent years, indicating that consumers’ perception of companies’ movement on these attributes is plateauing.

Consumers Believe American Companies Are Continuously Becoming More Political

Share of U.S. adults who said American corporations are becoming more or less …
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Surveys conducted Feb. 22-24, 2021, and Feb. 24-26, 2023, among representative samples of roughly 2,200 U.S. adults each, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points. ‘Don’t know/No opinion” responses not shown.

Large declines in the perception of improved brand ethics were seen among adults ages 18 to 34 (down 12 points), Democrats (down 11 points) and high-income consumers (down 16 points). These cohorts were more likely than adults overall to say brands were becoming more ethical two years ago, and it seems their perceptions are normalizing. 

Republican consumers consistently say companies have become more liberal (49% in 2023 versus 53% in 2021), which is driving up “anti-woke” brand sentiment in the party. However, despite recent pushback from right-wing organizations and Republican candidates on brands with ESG initiatives, Republican consumers still see a role for corporations to play when it comes to addressing different social and political issues. A majority of Republican consumers (58%) believe brands should be involved and take stances on political and social issues to some extent, which is a 14-point increase from February 2021. Of course, a stance that is popular with one party will likely be contentious with the other, but Republicans are also less likely than Democrats to boycott brands; in fact, the rate of brand boycotts by Republicans reached a series low in early 2023. There’s an exception to every rule, and brands aren’t completely immune from activism driven by right-wing commentators and political figures, but it’s unlikely. 

Despite divisions, some issues are consistent in bolstering or harming brand reputation

Brands that choose to take proactive stances on issues can find common ground across party and generational lines. Shoppers are motivated to purchase from brands that are committed to selling products made in the United States and supporting small businesses. Both of these proactive brand stances have been relatively stable in terms of consumer popularity over the last few years. 

Consumer reactions to negative or divisive company headlines also show some common ground: Shoppers are most likely to stop shopping from a brand they’ve previously been loyal to if that brand were accused of racism and discrimination, using forced labor or harming the environment. 

Consumers Are Most Likely to Stop Buying From Brands Accused of Racism and Discrimination

Share of U.S. adults who said whether they would continue shopping from a company they have a history of buying from if that company …
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Survey conducted Feb. 24-26, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,206 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Distinguishing between reputational risk and boycott risk is important here. While some customers might not necessarily agree with a brand’s stance, that doesn’t inherently put sales at risk. For example, while environmental sustainability messaging is not a strong motivator for Republican customers to buy from a particular company, they’re unlikely to punish a brand just because they don’t agree with its environmental initiatives. Even Gen Zers, known for their activism, aren’t universally engaged with all issues — they’re much more attuned to local issues than global ones.

While it's perhaps helpful that there are still a few issues that are relatively uncontentious, it’s clear that brands that want to stand out and bolster their reputation among a specific set of consumers risk alienating others. Understanding key themes in issues that a brand’s own shoppers care about requires more advanced customer understanding than just product and service preferences. 

Claire Tassin is a retail and e-commerce analyst. She conducts research on shifting consumer behaviors and expectations, as well as trends relevant to marketing leaders in the retail sector.
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