In the wake of last summer's protests over George Floyd's murder while in police custody, brands released an outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter. It was a potentially surprising development given that the social justice movement rarely garnered corporate champions before 2020, but followed a broader uptick in public favor for the cause.
Analyzing consumer reactions to posts from Ben & Jerry's, Nike and publisher Cook's Illustrated, the researcher Gartner found that tackling sociopolitical issues like Black Lives Matter serves to benefit marketers — even when the messages prove polarizing.
"We've seen that support for the [BLM] movement has grown and that opposition, which used to be equally as prevalent as support in 2015, has declined," Lindsey Roeschke, a director analyst at Gartner, said Tuesday during the firm's virtual Marketing Symposium/Xpo event. "What this means is that, for marketers establishing a position and advancing the conversation, consumer sentiment is [largely] favorable."
Still, marketers should not rush to chime in on sensitive topics they don't have a history addressing. For those that do carry the proper bona fides, ensuring consumers are aware of that history could be crucial, particularly when it comes to assuaging pickier liberals, according to Roeschke.
"Given the fact that the most notable differences for all three of these posts was between liberals and conservatives, it stands to reason that we should be evaluating how controversial messaging aligns with their values systems," Roeschke said. "Engaging with values on either side of the socio-political spectrum does not present equal levels of risk or reward, but consumers differ in their expectations of brand activism."
A tale of two brands
Nike and Ben & Jerry's stand out as companies that made a splash with marketing tied to racial advocacy this year, though split reactions initially suggest appetites for progressive messages only extend so far. For its study, Gartner showed consumers Instagram posts from both brands and asked them to provide open-ended feedback. The researcher also asked respondents to identify as either conservative or liberal on a five-point scale, defining those terms based on ideology, not party affiliation.
"The big split we see, as we so often do these days, is along ideological lines," Roeschke said. "Liberals are more likely to support the [BLM] movement and the principles behind it, while conservatives are more likely to oppose it."
Nike's campaign from late May — released just days after footage of Floyd's death sparked mass protests across the nation — flipped the apparel marketer's long-running "Just Do It" tagline on its head into "For Once, Don't Do It." Creative urged consumers not to ignore injustice and "pretend there is not a problem in America," and received strong marks from most viewers.
"Despite some variation across demographic groups, the net sentiment related to this post was positive. In fact, the sentiment was positive across almost all key demographic groups," Roeschke said, including income, age and ethnicity in her assessment.
Ben & Jerry's push, which extended to channels like in-store signage, dug into more specifics and was met with a less warm response while still notching generally positive ratings. As part of the effort, the Unilever-owned ice cream label outlined a four-point plan for dismantling White supremacy that included healing and reconciliation initiatives from the government and higher police accountability.
"We've got three consumer groups — older generations, White consumers and conservatives — for whom the post elicited a net negative response," Roeschke said. "We found that a lot of consumers bristled at the use of the term White supremacy, either rejecting the idea that it was an issue in American society or noting that it painted all White people or all cops as bad."
Beyond what was actually said in the ads, prior brand positioning played a role in how Ben & Jerry's was received compared to Nike. Even consumers who didn't agree with Nike were not surprised by the brand's stance. Many respondents pointed to a 2018 campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback and activist known for kneeling as a form of protest during the national anthem at games, which is today frequently cited as exemplary purpose marketing.
"When that campaign launched, it was really controversial; it evoked strong reactions on both sides," Roeschke said of the Kaepernick campaign. "But it seemed to have primed consumers for the same kind of messaging going forward, including in 2020.
"This really underscores the need for any type of commentary on social issues to be a long-term strategy rooted in brand values rather than a one-off opportunity to capitalize on a trend," Roeschke added. "In Nike's case, this commitment has started to pay dividends."
But Ben & Jerry's has championed social justice for many years. The company retains an activism manager in the U.S. and previously called out the Trump administration on issues like immigration. The upshot of the more mixed response to its messaging in June is that the ice cream brand's marketing simply hasn't made as much of a lasting impact in the consumer imagination.
"We saw many consumers who reacted negatively saying Ben & Jerry's should just stay in their lane or just sell ice cream, which suggests to us that consumers have a little bit less awareness of Ben & Jerry's history as an activist brand," Roeschke said. "[Not] having engaged in such high-profile ways as Nike did with the Kaepernick campaign, consumers were less likely to know about this piece of the brand's identity."
Marketers must also consider that a negative view of an ad is not necessarily an indictment of the brand sharing the message, nor does it always impact business outcomes, per Roeschke.
"For each post, the majority of consumers did not, in fact, change their opinion about the brand," she said.
"Brands are better-served right now by engaging in social issues, even when they're contentious, than by avoiding them," she added later.
Survey data showed liberals were more willing to take action based on a brand's values than conservatives, even as the latter camp expressed consistently negative attitudes toward ads around topics like Black Lives Matter. So while conservatives might be more sensitive to seeing Black Lives Matter in an ad, they're potentially less likely to vote with their wallet.
"When asked whether or not they think about what a brand stands for politically and socially when choosing whether or not to buy it, liberals are far more likely than conservatives to say they do," Roeschke said.
Gartner found that 40% of liberals take note of a brand's political and social stances when it comes to purchase consideration, while just 25% of conservatives said the same.
"The calculus changes when you think about the audience makeup," Roeschke said. "This means both the risk and the reward are higher when you're thinking of liberal consumers. If they feel that you share their values, they are more likely to reward you with their loyalty."