Should Brands Take a Stand on Social Issues? Consumer Expectations in 2024

The past few years have seen a profound shift in how consumers view the role of brands in society. Gone are the days when companies could stay comfortably apolitical, focusing solely on products and profits. In an era of heightened social consciousness, environmental threat, and political upheaval, people increasingly look to corporations to be leaders of positive change.

At the same time, the risks of wading into controversial issues have never been higher, as social media amplifies backlash and boycotts from all sides. As society becomes more polarized, any stance a brand takes is liable to be met with cheers from some and jeers from others.

So what do consumers really want and expect from brands when it comes to social and political activism in 2024? New research reveals some important nuances and complexities in answering this question. Let‘s dive into the data to parse out how different audiences are responding to brand activism in this turbulent time.

Consumers Increasingly Vote with Their Wallets

First, it‘s clear that for a large segment of consumers, a brand‘s perceived values play a major role in purchasing decisions. A global survey by Edelman in 2023 found that 54% of consumers buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. This "belief-driven buying" is up from 46% in 2017.

Other recent studies show similar trends. 60% of consumers told eMarketer in 2024 they choose to patronize local/small businesses whose values align with their own. 85% of Gen Z consumers in an Adweek study want brands to support racial equality, while 79% want brands to promote environmental sustainability and be honest about climate impact.

Clearly, as digital and social media make brands‘ every move more visible, their perceived ethics and politics are becoming powerful purchase drivers (or deterrents) for many consumers. "Voting with your wallet" is the new normal.

Demographics Tell a More Nuanced Story

However, these overall figures don‘t tell the whole story. Digging into demographic breakdowns reveals significant variations in how much different groups prioritize brand purpose and politics:

Demographic % who buy based on beliefs/values
Gen Z (age 13-24) 64%
Millennials (25-40) 61%
Gen X (41-56) 51%
Boomers (57-75) 33%
Women 58%
Men 51%
Black consumers 71%
Hispanic consumers 67%
Asian consumers 65%
White consumers 46%
LGBTQ+ 69%

Sources: 2024 research from Edelman, Nielsen, Pew Research Center, eMarketer

As the data shows, expectations for brand activism are significantly higher among youth, women, and racial/ethnic minorities compared to older generations and white consumers. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ consumers are the most likely of any group to align their spending with their values.

What explains these disparities? Factors likely include the fact that younger and more diverse consumer segments tend to skew more progressive politically. Many have grown up in an era of ubiquitous brand marketing and are more attune to the real-world impact major corporations have on their communities.

For groups that have historically faced discrimination and underrepresentation, seeing themselves and their values reflected authentically in the brands they engage with is especially meaningful. A 2024 Nielsen study found that 42% of LGBTQ+ consumers deliberately support brands that include their lifestyles and experiences in advertising.

From Slogans to Substance

However, simply hopping on the latest hashtag bandwagon is not enough to win over discerning belief-driven buyers. Consumers are quick to call out shallow, opportunistic "woke washing" – activism that is all talk and no walk.

As the Budweiser and Target Pride month controversies in 2023 demonstrated, brands open themselves up to reputational threats when their campaigns and merchandise celebrating marginalized groups are not backed up by tangible internal policies and consistent political actions supporting those communities.

Disney faced similar blowback in 2022 for its initially tepid response to Florida‘s "Don‘t Say Gay" bill, despite promoting itself as an LGBTQ+ ally. Critics argued the company didn‘t go far enough in leveraging its massive political and economic clout in the state to protect queer people.

In 2024, brands are increasingly focusing their activist efforts on making substantive internal changes and investments, not just social media slogans. For example:

  • Levi Strauss & Co: After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, Levi‘s expanded its employee benefits to cover travel costs for abortion care, and joined other companies in signing a full-page ad opposing abortion restrictions. The CEO said while these moves would be unpopular with some, "We can‘t dictate how people feel. We can only be true to our values as a company."

  • Microsoft: In 2023 the tech giant launched major new initiatives to become carbon negative, achieve "zero waste" in its direct operations, and remove more carbon than it has emitted since its founding by 2050. It also created a $1 billion fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction and removal technologies.

  • BlackRock: The world‘s largest asset manager has faced criticism from all political sides for its evolving stances on ESG investing and climate change. In his 2024 annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock chairman Larry Fink reiterated, "Every company and every industry will be transformed by the transition to a net zero world. The question is, will you lead, or will you be led?"

Such tangible actions demonstrate that a brand‘s social impact commitments extend far beyond marketing into core operations, even in the face of controversy. Consumers and employees increasingly expect this depth of authenticity.

B2B Brands Feel the Pressure Too

It‘s not just consumer brands feeling the heat to take stands. In a 2023 survey of B2B marketing leaders by Momentum ITSMA, 47% said they experienced pressure from customers or partners to address social issues, and 42% reported employee pressure.

For many B2Bs, this is uncharted territory. Taking public positions on sensitive topics risks alienating major clients and recruiting talent in an already tight labor market. Yet in an interconnected economy, remaining silent or neutral is no longer viable.

Some have seized the chance to differentiate themselves as industry leaders. Salesforce made waves in 2022 with its high-profile advocacy against state abortion bans and gun violence, even as it weathered backlash from conservative politicians. By 2024 the firm had further leveraged its clout to push its supply chain to set science-based emissions targets, source renewable energy, and disclose climate risks.

Looking Ahead: Gen Z Rising

As demographic shifts accelerate, the youth- and diversity-driven trend toward belief-driven buying shows no signs of abating. Gen Z‘s purchasing power is rapidly rising and expected to hit $2 trillion by 2025. This cohort will comprise 30% of the workforce by 2030, and their outsized expectations for corporate responsibility will reshape the business landscape.

Already, major investors like State Street are pressuring brands to disclose more workforce data on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity and take stronger stances on racial equity. Employees are joining the chorus through walkouts, strikes, open letters, and unions to protest ethical and political missteps by their employers.

Amid these growing stakeholder pressures, it‘s clear the age of brand neutrality has passed. Corporations that try to avoid the fray entirely will find themselves out of step with a society that demands proactive leadership from the private sector on existential issues.

At the same time, brands will have to strike a careful balance – engaging in activism that is authentic, localized, and responsive to key audiences while bracing for inevitable detractors. Winning strategies will vary by company, cause, and context.

But those who invest in truly aligning their brands with social impact for the long haul stand to earn the trust and loyalty of a rising generation that will define the future. As McKinsey put it in a 2024 report on Gen Z, "Harnessing their power will require engaging them as co-creators, not just consumers."

Advice for Brand Activists

For companies considering how to thoughtfully engage on social and political issues, a few key principles can help:

1. Look inward before outward. Spend time clarifying your brand‘s core values and purpose. Assess where you have the most credibility and potential for impact. Focus efforts there rather than reacting to every trending topic.

2. Engage key stakeholders. Survey your employees, consumers, shareholders, and community members to understand which issues matter most to them and how they want to see the company engage. Let their voices guide your strategy.

3. Go beyond statements. Develop a roadmap of meaningful actions to advance your chosen causes, with clear metrics for success. This could include changing business practices, making sizable donations, lobbying for policy changes, or partnering with impacted communities.

4. Communicate with nuance. Tailor your messaging thoughtfully for different audiences and local cultural contexts. Lead with empathy, acknowledge gray areas, and amplify diverse voices from within and outside your walls.

5. Plan for pushback. Use scenario planning to anticipate common arguments from critics and plan effective responses rooted in your values. Foster open dialogue with detractors while staying true to your principles.

The road ahead for brand activists will be fraught, but full of possibility. Companies who navigate it with authenticity, courage, and humility can help steer society toward a more just and sustainable future – and those who sit on the sidelines will be left behind.