Marketing in today’s polarizing times

The nearly equally politically divided United States means companies are likely to upset 50% of their stakeholders at any time. In today’s political and social landscape, business is often pulled into the issues of the day — wanted or not. The best course is to be ready, act boldly and proceed with purpose.

We know trust in the U.S. has taken a nosedive, especially in government and media. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reports the average trust in institutions dropped nine points among the general population, the steepest decline ever measured in the survey. Among the informed public, the U.S. went from sixth in trust in institutions to dead last at 28th. This trust contagion is having a negative effect on business. Of those surveyed, 56% said they don’t know which politicians to trust and 42% stated they don’t know which companies or brands to trust. This is creating a vacuum of moral authority, a venerable position previously occupied by politicians, statesmen, academics and journalists. With the erosion of trust in these institutions, business increasingly finds itself as the default moral authority on major social issues.

The book Microtrends Squared examines the insight that right below society’s surface there are small changes coming together in powerful patterns that are fundamentally shifting our world. Think of these small changes (the microtrends) as the individual paint dots that when you step back and look at the picture holistically, come together in a full impressionist painting.

One of these microtrends is that more choices in our society has resulted in people finding ones they like and then repeating them over and over again, thereby further balkanizing America and Americans.

The complexity in navigating this divide increases with the number of employees, range of investors and breadth of products or services. In short, the bigger a company is and the more mainstream, the greater number of stakeholders with divergent and polarized opinions to manage. So how can communications and marketing professionals help business leaders navigate this volatile environment?

The weight of recent research and insights seems to point to a few key actions:

  1. define and share an authentic purpose;
  2. proactively consider what issues matter to you and how you will engage; and
  3. shout about it (marketing!) so consumers connect your brand to your social impact platform.

Anchor to purpose

Everyone is talking about purpose and social good. And rightly so. Clearly defining who your organization is, what it stands for and why you exist as an entity are immensely valuable for many reasons. Having a corporate purpose, vision and stated values proves especially useful in complicated and controversial times.

Purpose is also essential to building your brand for customers of both today and tomorrow. Kantar Consulting’s Purpose 2020 study acknowledges that companies today have more than enough size, reach and trust to make a positive impact on the world. With this comes higher expectations — in the Kantar Global MONITOR, over 60% of consumers under 30 preferred brands that have a point of view and stand for something compared to less than half of older consumers. Kantar also reported that brands with a high sense of purpose experienced a brand valuation increase of 175% over the past 12 years, compared to a median growth rate of 86% and a 70% growth rate for brands with a less honed sense of purpose.

Be ready

Defining and expressing an authentic purpose helps brands weather a storm or contain a crisis. While speaking out no doubt creates risk, silence can be just as damaging. It’s best to assume your brand will be drawn into related (and possibly unrelated) controversy. Plan for scenarios proactively.

The experts recommend having a bias toward preparedness and action– because in today’s world time to respond matters nearly equally as much as the response itself. Weber Shandwick research showed the average time a company takes to activate a social media plan in response to a crisis is 38 hours, an eternity in today’s news cycle. Be proactive and ready with a compelling narrative.

Consider actively sharing your purpose, engaging in relevant cause marketing and entering germane conversations on social media, too. Sprout Social reported that 66% of consumers surveyed said brands should take public stands on social and political issues and more than half (58%) are open to this happening on social media. Interestingly, respondents said these posts rarely or never influence their opinions on issues; however, they give credit for effecting positive change.

Be bold and memorable

Despite so many politically charged topics, there are still a few unifying topics, including hunger relief, economic growth and environmental issues. Here, being bold matters.

In the APCO Corporate Advocacy study, when asked which companies consumers would admire more, 77% said a company that uses its business interests and expertise to address a social issue, versus 23% who said a company that donates money to a worthy charity. By a wide margin, doing nothing is the least appealing thing a company can do among this group of stakeholders. It’s also more important than ever to be memorable. In the barrage of media and marketing messages, it’s easy to see how consumers could struggle to connect brands with their respective social causes, particularly if not clearly related. Despite consumers’ strong beliefs that companies should actively support social causes, they are not good at remembering which companies are doing what.

These and other compelling insights underscore Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste social impact plan. We introduced this plan in 2017 with an ambitious commitment: to end hunger in our communities and eliminate waste across our company by 2025. We “market” this sub-brand as bold, committed, connected and uplifting. In fact, Fortune magazine recently ranked Kroger #6 on its Change the World 2018 list, which recognizes companies around the world that use their business resources to solve social issues. We believe we not only made the list for the first time but also debuted in the top 10 due to simplicity, authenticity and the sheer ambitiousness of our goals.

Zero Hunger | Zero Waste is authentic to who we are as a company. For Kroger, 135 years in the grocery business have taught us a few things about people and about food. We know that meals matter. Families that share meals together have children who do better in all aspects of their lives. And yet there is a fundamental absurdity in the U.S. food system – 40% of the food produced is thrown away, yet 1 in 8 Americans struggle with hunger. In fact, 1 in 6 children go hungry every day.

It’s also how we live Our Purpose — to Feed the Human Spirit™ — every day. Across our family of companies, we have a rich heritage of providing the food and nourishment people need

to live their best lives. As America’s grocer, we have the physical assets, technology and resources to drive positive change, plus nearly half a million passionate employees.

With purpose and Zero Hunger | Zero Waste in mind, business decisions become more clear, like Kroger’s latest commitment to phase out of single-use plastic grocery bags. We know there are less wasteful ways for our shoppers to take their groceries home and we want to be part of the solution.

We can already see that Zero Hunger | Zero Waste is inspiring action and building community across our divided world. More than ever, marketing and building your company’s brand depends on navigating our polarized world with vision, clarity, authenticity and empathy. Customers, associates and stakeholders will know what you really stand for and can opt-in with full transparency and trust.


To download a full copy of the 2019 Relevance Report, click here.

Jessica focuses on reputation management, including external communications and brand public relations, environmental sustainability and social responsibility, media, government and regulatory affairs, crisis management, cause-marketing and corporate philanthropy, and community relations. 

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