One of the most pressing questions for businesses today is whether or not to respond to social and political issues. Some of the most prominent examples of brands that have taken a hard stance in recent years include Dick’s Sporting Goods, which restricted gun sales after the Parkland school shooting, and the many companies that publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the killing of George Floyd in 2020. 

Some say aligning with social and political issues is harmful in the long-run, while others see it as a now-permanent aspect of business that is only bound to become more relevant with time. 

When it comes to what consumers want and expect from companies today, a recent CivicScience survey of more than 2,200 U.S. adults finds that the public is heavily divided on the topic. More respondents – 56% – believe businesses should refrain from taking a stand on important social and political issues, and a solid 30% say companies “never” should. In comparison, 37% of people believe businesses should take a stand on issues and just 14% believe they “always” should.

The differences largely come down to politics itself. A total of 81% of Republicans say that businesses should not align with social and political causes. More than half say they “never” should. In contrast, 57% of Democrats favor doing so, while 36% do not. Democrats are nearly three times as likely as Republicans to believe companies should “always” take a stand, and nearly five times less likely to say they “never” should. Independents fall somewhere in-between.

Age is also an important piece of the puzzle. Both Gen Z adults (18-24) and Baby Boomers (55+) are the most likely to be in favor of businesses taking a stand on social and political issues. In comparison, Gen X (35-54) are the least likely – close to 40% believe businesses should “never” speak out on issues. Ultimately, Gen Z adults and Baby Boomers appear to be the most divided age groups on the topic, whereas Millennials (25-34) and Gen X are surprisingly more likely to lean towards “no.”

Purpose-Driven Brands

Responding to social and political issues is one aspect of a larger trend towards supporting companies who are  “purpose-driven” or that practice corporate responsibility. The survey also looked at several different “values” that U.S. consumers might find the most important when deciding whether or not to purchase a product or service, including employee treatment, supporting social or political causes, sustainable environmental practices, diversity and inclusion, and transparency and trustworthiness.

Two-thirds of respondents believe that at least one of the listed values factors into their purchasing decisions. Brand transparency and trust was the most-selected option, and was nearly twice as likely to be seen as important compared to championing social and political causes. Consumers want to buy from brands they feel are honest and trustworthy.

A greater number of consumers are also more likely to say how a company treats its employees influences their purchasing decisions, even more so than sustainable practices or diversity and inclusion.

Results vary widely when broken down by age. Gen Z adults are the most likely overall to report that the values listed matter when making a purchase. They are also the most likely to say supporting social or political causes they believe in is important to them as consumers. In fact, that is the most important option for the age group, receiving 35% of responses and far outweighing others.

On the other hand, Gen X and Baby Boomers are far more likely to value how transparent and trustworthy a brand is when making a purchasing decision.

Do consumers believe most brands or businesses live up to their expectations when it comes to engaging in ethical practices? Not really. In total, the majority (78%) of U.S. adults believe less than 50% of brands/businesses today can be labeled as “ethical.” Just over half (52%) of respondents believe an even smaller percentage – fewer than one-quarter – are ethical.

However, consumer expectations are in a constant state of change. Year-over-year averages show that the importance of a company’s “social consciousness” and overall kindness has fluctuated within the past three years. Importance (measured as the sum of those who answered “very important” and “somewhat important”) hovered around 75% in 2019 and rose to a a high point in mid-2020, coinciding with major social and political events such as Black Lives Matter protests and gearing up for the 2020 election.

Today, overall concern has fallen back to 74%, but fewer people are likely to say that a company’s social consciousness is “very important” and more are likely to say it is “not at all important” when compared to 2019 sentiments. 

With supply chain disruptions and inflation taking hold in 2021, other concerns may pale in comparison to price. Data show consumers indeed have become more price-sensitive over the last year, and when looking at the concerns of those who value price over brand, a company’s social consciousness/kindness is significantly less important compared to those who place brand first.

Do the types of community- and customer-focused values studied in the survey matter to consumers? The results suggest a strong “yes.” However, what matters depends upon who the consumer is. For example, young adults and liberals are much more likely to care about a company’s take on social and political issues, while older demographics are more likely to buy from brands/companies they feel are honest and trustworthy. How these ideals translate into actual purchasing behaviors requires a closer look, especially in today’s climate of rising prices.