Rotman Executive Summary

Mind the gap: Should brands weigh in on divisive topics?

Episode Summary

From issues of bodily autonomy to climate change to social equality, the world is increasingly polarized, and even companies can't escape hot-button topics. While once, organizations could keep their positions on divisive issues to themselves, consumers are demanding they take sides. But should they? And how can brands weigh in without alienating the people who disagree with their stance? Assistant professor Rhia Catapano explores how businesses can navigate these polarizing topics on the latest episode of the Executive Summary.

Episode Notes

From issues of bodily autonomy to climate change to social equality, the world is increasingly polarized, and even companies can't escape hot-button topics. While once, organizations could keep their positions on divisive issues to themselves, consumers are demanding they take sides. But should they? And how can brands weigh in without alienating the people who disagree with their stance? Assistant professor Rhia Catapano explores how businesses can navigate these polarizing topics on the latest episode of the Executive Summary. 

Show notes:

[0:00] In 2022, Disney and the state of Florida became embroiled in a polarizing debate over the state's alleged "Don't Say Gay" bill, which Disney opposed, albeit belatedly. 

[0:56] Once, businesses could stay silent when hot topics arose, but today consumers are demanding they take sides. 

[1:32] Meet Rhia Catapano, an assistant professor at the Rotman School of management who studies consumer persuasion. 

[2:20] Brands most often worry about consumer boycotts when they take stances their audiences disagree with. But that worry might be misplaced. 

[2:49] Consumers tend to buy from companies when it's inconvenient to maintain their boycott. 

[3:14] We're also likely to change our memories, thinking we boycotted a product, even when we still loaded it into our carts. 

[6:10] And we often believe signaling our intentions to boycott is "enough," so we feel less guilty even as we're purchasing items from a brand we've said we'll avoid. 

[7:36] So if we're so bad at boycotting, why should businesses care? For one, the reputational hit is very real. 

[7:51] There are always cases where brands don't have to worry - particularly when the audience boycotting the brand isn't it's target audience. See Nike, Colin Kaepernick and the social right in the U.S. 

[8:31] But when the audiences align, boycotts are particularly effective in this age of social media. First, because social media makes it easier to propagate messages. 

[9:23] Second, social media creates a "safe space" to share polarizing opinions. 

[10:10] So how can companies navigate hot button issues? First, make sure you're not being a hypocrite. 

[10:49] Consider how you frame your stance around an issue, and what you want to achieve by making public statements. 

[13:08] Be real about whether you can take the heat. 

[13:58] And consider new audience opportunities when your values don't align with your existing customer base. "It makes the most sense for the company to stick to what are their core values and what can they do that will align with what they've done in the past and what they want to do moving forward, rather than trying to please everyone.

Episode Transcription

Megan Haynes: In the early months of 2022, the state of Florida unveiled new legislation banning instruction on sexuality and gender identity for kindergarteners through third grade. Backlash was swift, with critics calling it the "Don’t Say Gay" bill. Yet one prominent business was silent. 

Disney, which operates the hugely profitable Disney World in the state, was apparently working behind the scenes to pressure legislators to reconsider the bill, but publicly opted not to make any statement on the issue out of concern of alienating some of its audience. 

But employees and socially progressive consumers noticed, and soon started to pressure Disney to take a stance. 

When the company finally came out publicly against the bill, reaction from the socially conservative right, including the republican governor of the state, was loud, with calls to boycott and punish the House of Mouse.

With such a politically divisive topic, what was Disney to do? 

Rhia Catapano: At one point in time, the general wisdom was that companies shouldn't weigh in on political issues, because they really only had to lose in these situations. Now more and more, consumers want companies to weigh in. And they interpret companies who don't weigh in on political issues as potentially being part of the opposition and disagreeing with their views, and if they were moral companies, then they would weigh in. 

I think in a lot of cases, for companies that have really wide bases there is no winning. And it's the case that someone is always going to be alienated

MH: That’s Rhia Catapano, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management. She studies consumer psychology and persuasion – particularly around polarizing topics – and she says it’s a really interesting time for brands trying to navigate sensitive issues. 

Companies are increasingly being drawn into the social and political maelstrom and it’s no longer whether they should weigh in on an issue, but how to manage the backlash from the people who disagree. 

So how do consumers react when brands take a stance, and what – if anything – should companies do to get in front of the bad press? 

Welcome to the Executive Summary, I’m Megan Haynes, editor of the Rotman Insights Hub. 

Musical interlude 

MH: For companies looking to weigh in on politically or socially divisive issues, the first thing they often think about is losing customers. 

Boycotting brands isn’t a new concept: If a company does something you morally disagree with, you stop buying their products. It’s a way of "voting with your wallet," and companies should be concerned when the word boycott starts being bandied about. But maybe not for the reasons they think, because it turns out consumers are actually pretty bad at shifting their buying patterns. 

Sometimes outside forces make us feel like we have to buy a product or service. 

RC: For example, in some research, they find that people will take an Uber, even if Uber doesn't align with their own beliefs, if it's raining outside. So in those cases, people likely feel like they don't have another choice. They need a ride to get to where they're going. They don't want to walk in the rain. And as a result we'll buy from Uber anyway.

MH: As consumers, not only are we good at justifying our purchases, we’re really good at misremembering what we’ve bought when it conflicts with our morals. 

In one study, Rhia and her colleagues looked at purchasing behaviour at Starbucks following the Trump administration’s ban on Muslim travellers in 2017. 

In response to the executive order, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz vowed to hire thousands of refugees. Those on the political right promised to skip their next Grande orders, while those on the left vowed to buy more from the coffee giant. 

Armed with actual purchase data from shoppers as well as their political beliefs and their stated promise to buy or buycott Starbucks, Rhia found that there was no change to purchase patterns. 

RC: People who used to buy continue to. People who didn't buy continue to not buy. And there's not actually a relationship between people's political leanings and any actual behavior change. Even though people think that they changed their behaviour. 

MH: But funnily enough, people believed they had boycotted or buycotted Starbucks – even when they knew Rhia and her team had the receipts to prove they didn’t change their behaviour at all. 

RC: So the question here is, how are people able to believe that they change their behavior and boycotted something, when in fact, they didn't change their behavior

MH: A second study invited people to shop at a simulated online store. Participants were asked to fill their carts with products from fictional companies, These fictional brands offered similar items, though there were a limited number from which people could choose. After participants hit the buy button at the end of the simulation, they were told that one of the products was made by a company that donated to a cause they either agreed or disagreed with. They were then asked to estimate how many products they purchased or didn’t purchase from that brand. People who disagreed with the fake company’s stance overestimated how many products they didn’t buy, believing they purchased fewer times from that brand than was actually possible – remembering there a limited number of products from which to choose from in the first place. 

RC: However, people actually say that they did boycott. They believe that they could have bought more than they actually did, which suggests that people are in some ways modifying their memories where even if they do buy some, they're thinking about how many more times they could have bought, and believing that they boycotted the brand, even when in this case, we know that they couldn't have because they didn't have the information that they needed to do so.

MH: So why are we so bad at remembering our own actions? 

RC: In general, people are motivated to see themselves as good kind people who act in ways that are aligned with their values. In some cases, rather than changing their actual behavior, people instead change the way they think about their behavior or the issue by finding ways to justify why they had to do what they did. 

I think a big part of it is that because we have this self view, as a good person, it's really easy to reinterpret those things. 

MH: Essentially, because we know in our hearts we’re good people, when we think back on our past actions, we’re more likely to change the narrative to fit that worldview. 

This also extends beyond just thinking about what we’ve done in the past. When it comes to boycotting behaviour, just signaling we’re boycotting a company might be enough for our brains to feel like we’ve accomplished our goals – even when we’re still loading a brand into our carts. 

RC: There's this idea in psychology and marketing of moral licensing. So when someone does something good, then they've reaffirmed that they're a good person who does moral things. And as a result, they're then able to sometimes do things that are less good, but not feel bad about themselves, because they know they're a good person. They've already reaffirmed. 

It's possible that people can share how they feel on social media feel like they supported a cause by doing that, and then not worry as much about their actual behavior in terms of what they're purchasing or what companies they're engaging with, because they already feel like they've engaged with the cause productively by stating how they feel and by trying to propagate this message.

MH: So, we justify our lack of action when it’s not convenient, we misremember what we bought or didn’t buy when it doesn’t align with our self-views, and we’re likely to believe we’ve done enough by just signaling we plan on boycotting, even if we continue to purchase from a company… 

If consumers are so bad at boycotting, is there a reason for companies to worry when a message goes wrong? 

Musical interlude 

MH: Even though consumers might not be great at curbing their own purchasing behaviour, Rhia warns there is very real financial risk when people start talking about boycotting products. And a lot of it comes down to a brand’s reputation. 

RC: Actually, I think companies always need to worry about this bad press.

MH: There will, of course, be times when a public boycott isn’t something that a company needs to worry about – particularly when the outcry is coming from a group that isn’t a brand’s target audience. Rhia gives the example of Nike and the social right in the US. 

After Nike signed Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson - you’ll remember he was the football star who silently protested police violence against Black men by kneeling during the national anthem - the political right took umbrage and promised to blacklist Nike from their closets. 

RC: In fact, that wasn't Nikes core consumer base. So a big thing that helped Nike there is that any reputational cost with that group didn't hurt them. And their reputational gains with liberals did help them.

MH: Consumer backlash becomes problematic when it is your core audience who are alienated by your statements or views – particularly in this age of social media. 

RC: Social media makes it much easier for information to propagate through networks really quickly and to be shared between people really quickly. 

MH: Social media, by its nature is a bit of an echo chamber – you tend to follow and connect with people in your community, who already have a lot of the same views and values you have. 

This is a double-edged sword: First, you’re sharing your boycotting plans with an audience who are already receptive to your message and more inclined to share themselves.

RC: Once one person in a network says that they're angry at a company are going to boycott, it's not a matter of people then talking to other people about that. They can share with their entire network at once. And then another person can hit "share," and very easily share that with their network also.

MH: Second, people are more comfortable posting potentially divisive views on social media when they know their network already agrees with them. It’s possible that without that supportive echo chamber, they might not have posted those views in the first place. 

RC: So in some sense, the existence of these echo chambers does make it more likely that reputational risks can perpetuate through a network very quickly, because you'll have many people on a person's network who agree with them and because people are potentially less afraid of seeing negative repercussions from other people in their networks, if most people probably agree with them.

Musical interlude

MH: So how can companies navigate politically and socially divisive issues? 

Rhia says they need to reflect on whether what they plan on saying publicly aligns with their actual practices and beliefs. It’s hard to come out in support of, say, reducing CO2 emissions to fight climate change, only for it to be revealed that your overseas factories are flouting local environmental regulations. 

RC: In a lot of cases, consumers view these political statements as being insincere. And that is very likely to lead to only negative things for the company where people who agree with the company are not going to feel positively about a message if it feels insincere. And people who disagree with the company are still going to feel negatively towards that message. 

Another thing that companies need to think about when they're weighing in on these social issues is not just whether to weigh in, but how to weigh in. 

MH: When we think about how we talk about a potentially divisive topic, there are two ways we can frame it. 

We can come out in support of something – I support equal rights for women in the workplace. Or we can come out in opposition – I’m against gender discrimination in the workplace. It’s the same concept – both advocating for women’s equality – but they are framed differently. 

Rhia’s latest research shows that how you frame your view matters in how effective you are at reaching your goal. 

Research shows coming out in favour of something – showing your support – is good because people are eager to share that message with their own groups. They like it. It resonates with them. So, if you want consumers to amplify your message or garner more advocacy on an issue, you want to frame it as a supportive message – particularly when you’re talking to people who already agree with your point. 

RC: Although people want to share what they support, I find that this isn't actually always the best strategy if you want to engage with people who disagree with you and foster receptiveness. So what I find is that when you talk about what you support, people who agree with you on that issue, are very receptive to what you're saying, because they see the issue in the same way. On the other hand, when you're talking about what you support for people who disagree with you, that's going to feel less aligned with the way they view the world. 

MH: Essentially, when you’re trying to persuade someone to come over to your side of a debated topic, it’s more effective to come out against something – we’re against gender discrimination, we’re against climate change, we’re against racial profiling, etc. 

RC: When you're talking about what you oppose, in some ways, you're conceding part of the argument to them, where you're recognizing the validity of their worldview and the way that they want to talk about it. So by talking about what you oppose and what they support, you're sort of meeting someone on their own turf. And as a result, they're more willing to engage in that conversation, and more receptive to what you have to say because it seems like you're trying to work with them also. I also find that people believe that when you're expressing opposition, you're more receptive to the other side. 

MH: When companies weigh in on these topics, they need to think long and hard about the goal of their message. Are they just trying to show support of a cause, or are they actually trying to change mindsets. 

Companies should also think seriously about how their consumer base will realistically respond and whether they can actually handle the bad press if there’s disagreement… because walking your statement back in the face of consumer backlash can be more detrimental than not having said anything in the first place. 

RC: People who disagree with the company are going to continue to be angry that the company said this. And people who agree with the company are going to be angry that they backed back down on what they said that they believed. So it's important to be consistent.

MH: There will be times an organization and its consumers disagree on important issues. And this is a going to be a real challenge for companies and there is no easy fix. 

RC: I think the reality is that for companies who disagree with their consumer base on important issues, it's very difficult to weigh in on those issues because it's only going to alienate the people who they need to support their company financially.

MH: But not all is lost: 

RC: So it’s important to think about, in some cases, whether the company needs to evolve and think about other consumer bases that are better aligned with the company's core values. And although in the short term, it might hurt the company, thinking about whether in the long term, there's another consumer group they can target that will be better aligned with their core values and be a good long term strategy, something even if it takes time to move from one consumer group to another.

It makes the most sense for the company to stick to what are their core values and what can they do that will align with what they’ve done in the past and what they want to do moving forward rather than trying to please everyone

Musical outro

MH: This has been Rotman Executive Summary, a podcast bringing you the latest insights and innovative thinking from Canada's leading business school.  

Special thanks to assistant professor Rhia Catapano. 

This marks the end of our second season – we’ll back in September with more research from our esteemed faculty, and in the meantime, make sure to check out our sister podcast, Rotman Visiting Experts (Spotify, Apple, Amazon), where we chat with authors and speakers from our acclaimed speaker series. 

This episode was written and produced by Megan Haynes. It was recorded by Dan Mazzotta, and edited by Avery Moore Kloss.   

For more innovative thinking, head over to the Rotman Insights Hub, and subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Apple or Amazon

Thanks for tuning in.