The Two-Way Street of Corporate Social Responsibility

Look both waysBack in ancient times, or August 2011 as it were, Mitt Romney stood at the Iowa State Fair and declared: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

His political opponents on the left roundly excoriated him for being out-of-touch. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, then the chair of the DNC, piled on and called his statement a “shocking admission.” Their communications director said, “There’s a great message for people struggling to get by and trying to make ends meet. Don’t complain — corporations are people too!”

Fast forward to the present: corporations are brands, brands are not only people, but many of those same critics from before want brands to share their values, politics, and voting behavior.

However, public data shows that consumer sentiment may not reflect such an extreme swing. In fact, even in the areas where Americans have shifted most towards expecting a certain cultural attitude from corporations or brands, there are hints that the ground may rapidly shift under their feet.

A Morning Consult survey from January 2021 reports that consumers are essentially evenly divided on whether it is appropriate for local businesses and media companies to make public statements about political divisions, by a 53-47 margin. Every other segment of the economy measured by the Morning Consult survey had a majority of respondents saying they thought it was inappropriate to weigh in on political divisions.

Perhaps even more interesting, respondents viewed brand statements about politics almost the same between a conservative statement (52/47 favorable/unfavorable) and a liberal statement (51/49). Needless to say, brand statements with a conservative flavor have been few and far between, despite the comparable perspective among all consumers.

This phenomenon is, at best, a reflection of brands understanding that consumers with liberal or progressive politics say they are more likely to put the companies they buy from under a political microscope as well. In another survey from Morning Consult in January 2021, 68 percent of Democrats say they pay closer attention to the “ethical and political matters relating to companies they buy from.” However, the overall number among all Americans in the survey is sixty percent. Why then would brands be so concerned about their image to progressive consumers, without an equivalent concern among the conservatives or centrists who buy their products as well?

The answer may lie, once again, in the inputs. That same survey showed a majority of Gen Z respondents, the youngest cohort of consumers measured, believed “CEOs play and important role in society, and should use their influence to impact societal issues.” At 52% of respondents sharing that view, Gen Z was the only age cohort to hold that view as a majority opinion. Likewise, 46% of Millennials agreed, 31% of Gen X agreed, and a mere 25% of Boomers agreed with that statement.

In essence, the cohort that is the most Extremely Online is most likely to be both consuming these left-leaning brand statements and creating the market for more of them. Whether these consumers are a large or small share of a brand’s actual customer base is another question entirely, and unique to every case. However, the consistent leftward pressure under the guise of “Corporate Social Responsibility” does place a hefty bet on a continuation of asymmetrical warfare: that brands can continue to be political in one direction only, and pay no penalty among their customers who hold more conservative views than Twitter users writ large.

Brands concerned about how their current and potential customers view the current political environment would do well to solicit their own political intelligence, rather than measure which way the wind is blowing by monitoring hashtags alone. Brands that understand their customers at a cultural level, whether conservative or progressive or neither, will have more success riding out political waves regardless of their direction.

Source links:

Mitt Romney says ‘corporations are people’:

Mitt Romney Heckled, Says Corporations ‘Are People, My Friend’:

Morning Consult January 21, 2021 brand statements survey:

Morning Consult January 5, 2021 polarized public survey: