Why controversies might be good for brands—study

Consumers care about the positions company leaders take on the big issues of the day, but the fallout from taking a controversial stand usually blows over, a new study found.


A lot of brands have taken flak over taking stands on political issues.

There was Chick-fil-A’s flap over the COO’s anti-gay marriage statements last summer. Starbucks, meanwhile, has publicly supported gay marriage. Hobby Lobby has chosen not to offer its employees contraception coverage. The list goes on.

Though PR people certainly remember those incidents, most in the public forget them soon after they happen, according to a report from marketing consulting firm WrightIMC. It found that, largely, brands that stick to their positions may face an initial dip in sales in the month or so after a controversy, but soon afterward, the increased attention the stance brought the brand is actually beneficial.

“Because a brand takes a stand, they get attention,” says Tony Wright, founder and CEO of WrightIMC. “You can’t buy that kind of press.”

As long as brands can tough out the initial pain, stay aware of who their audiences are, and don’t waffle, the outcome might be positive, he says.

Audience awareness

“In the research, one of the things that was very obvious to me was that there are a lot of people that agreed that a brand’s stand affected their purchasing decisions, but not a lot that strongly agreed,” Wright says.

What does that mean? People who aren’t really passionate about the importance of a brand stance will come back, if what you have to sell is good enough.

“Most of the ones that disagreed with you initially will drop off and forget. If your product is high-quality enough, they’ll continue to buy from you down the road,” he says.

Wright offers a caveat, though: Certain audiences care more about political stances than others. For example, consumers in the South tend to agree that stances are important, but not too strongly. In the Northeast, passions run a little higher. Age and income can make a big difference, too, he says.

The long-lasting effect of taking a political stand, Wright says, is lots of online articles about the brand. For companies that have a smart search engine optimization plan in place, that means an increased Internet presence that can supersede the controversy, if the right links make it to the top of search engines.

Making the right moves

Before stepping into the political arena, brands should make sure they have the resources to ride out the month or so of media coverage that will come from it. That includes having crisis plans in place.

“Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, specifically, had more of a framework for how they were going to respond to things based on their culture and their company ethics,” Wright says.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure, which revoked its funding for Planned Parenthood, then restored it, erred in doing a complete 180 on its position. That’s the worst thing you can do, he says.

“Companies need to have a personality,” Wright says. “It’s not enough anymore just to be a fly on the wall. Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s OK.”

With more conversation between customers and brands on social media, consumers have an expectation to hear what their favorite brands stand for.

“If you like a company and like what they stand for, you’re much more likely to have a brand affinity,” Wright says. “If a company stands for nothing, they very likely do not have passionate brand advocates.”

Companies shouldn’t force things, though; public stances have to come from the company culture.

“If your company doesn’t have a strong opinion on a specific item, I would not recommend taking a stand,” Wright says. “The point of the white paper is to not be afraid to take a stand because it’s something your company strongly believes.”

More research needed

One interesting detail about WrightIMC’s survey of 3,000 consumers is that the most common answer—about 35 percent of the total—was that respondents said they “neither agree nor disagree” with the questions.

Wright says that answer likely equates to “I don’t know” or “undecided.” WrightIMC used Google Consumer Surveys to collect the data, and the questions were a gateway to premium content. Quite a few users probably chose the middle-ground answer to get through the survey as quickly as possible, Wright theorized.

Because of that, more research is needed on the topic—research that doesn’t come with the limitations of the tool WrightIMC used.

“I would hope, down the road, that someone else would take this up, maybe in academia,” Wright says.

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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