February 09, 2017
Most people don't put "politics" on their shopping list -- but it's what a growing number of companies are selling. These days, what's lining store shelves is only part of the story in corporate America, where CEOs seem more preoccupied with pushing their brand of morals than merchandise. Fans got a taste of the shift last Sunday, when the second biggest story from the Super Bowl was the liberal slant to many ads. With commercials that cost a 100 thousand dollars a second, brands like Coca-Cola, Google, Airbnb and others surprised everyone by spending the single biggest marketing moment of the year on their politics -- not products.
And according to one survey, it's starting to affect how people view them. "In such divided times, as companies scurry to figure out if and how to respond to the issues and commentary of the new administration, we find that corporate reputation perceptions can be just as polarizing," said Wendy Salomon, vice president at The Harris Poll. "Companies that have taken very public stands for their beliefs are rewarded by consumers of similar or liberal views, but there is also clear risk among those who feel otherwise."
Every year, Salomon's organization polls Americans about the reputation of 100 of the most visible brands in the U.S. What they're discovering now is that this ideology-over-items approach is hugely impacting the image of American businesses. How outspoken these companies are on cultural issues is having a seismic influence on what shoppers think of them. That would certainly explain why Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby have a significantly better reputation with Republicans than Democrats. The two companies, whose CEOs have been out front on the marriage and religious liberty debates at various times over the years, have a 17-point edge with conservatives over liberals.
The opposite is true of Target, where the gender-free bathroom debate kicked off a devastating 1.5 million-person boycott. Not surprisingly, Democrats give the retailer a rating 11 points higher than Republicans. Interestingly enough, though, conservatives still have the edge in enthusiasm by six percent -- which companies ignore at their peril. (Just ask Target shareholders.) "Values play a bigger role than ever before in corporate reputation, and the business significance of a company's reputation has never been higher," said The Harris Poll's Mark Penn. "Consumers are keenly invested in how companies engage in the world, and that includes corporate ideals. As the red versus blue duel of politics impacts corporate reputation, we expect to see more alignment along party beliefs." That comes with its own risks, 2nd Vote Executive Director Lance Wray warns.
"It's not surprising that Wells Fargo and Bank of America are at the very bottom of the reputation ratings considering their abysmal records on advancing the liberal agenda. The fact that both of these companies directly fund Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign reflect an internal corporate culture mired in creating a platform for liberal advocacy rather than developing sound public relations. And not just on these two issues, but all of them from top to bottom, in terms of liberal advocacy they are essentially the biggest players.
Furthermore, the reputations of Target and Starbucks clearly suffer from their polarizing policies. If not for leadership that feels obligated to use their position as a platform to browbeat the public on matters of 'inclusivity' and 'acceptance' without regard to the safety concerns, common sense and the values of many of their customers, there is no question that their ranking would be in the top 10 rather than the bottom half. This study makes it even more clear that companies should focus on all their customers and shareholders, rather than entering the political fray."
Unfortunately, out of desperation or pressure -- or both -- some businesses are still trying to woo customers with political correctness. Most of them (like Kellogg's, Grubhub, Lands' End, and Starbucks) find out the hard way that it doesn't work. At the end of the day, Americans respect -- and reward -- companies that stay neutral in the culture war. And thanks to organizations like 2nd Vote, it's a lot easier to know which companies those are. With apps like theirs, you can make sure your dollars aren't lining the pockets of businesses that will only use the money to mock your morals. Anymore, you're not just buying coffee or shampoo -- you're buying into a company's beliefs. So make sure you know where your favorite brands stand. And don't just voice your values -- shop them!
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.