The fight over corporate politics is just beginning

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WASHINGTON — Anheuser-Busch announced a rough second quarter of 2023 this week: a 10.5% decline in revenue, one of many examples showing how the nation’s political and cultural fights have filtered into the world of corporate branding

Much of the blame for that drop, which is primarily due to falling sales of Bud Light, is tied to a consumer boycott of the beer that began when it partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney for an Instagram advertisement.

Now, new polling data suggests Americans feel a little uneasy about the growing world consumer politics, while also indicating brands taking stands may be with us for a while.

For the most part, Americans seem less than excited that companies are wading into the political realm, according to data from CNBC’s recent All-America Economic Survey.

About 6 in 10 Americans say they believe it is inappropriate for companies to take stands on political, social and cultural issues, according to the survey. A little less than a third of respondents say they believe those stands are appropriate. 

But as is the case with a many other topics in United States, those views change sharply when you look at the responses through a partisan lens. 

Among Republicans there is a strong distaste for corporate issue stances: 71% say the practice is inappropriate, while just 17% say it is. Independent voters look like the overall figures, as is often the case, with 61% saying it is inappropriate and 33% saying it is. And Democrats are much more accepting of businesses taking issue stands. Only 43% of Democrats say that practice is inappropriate while slightly more, 47%, say it is appropriate.

Of course, the stands that companies take are only half the equation. The consumer response to those stands is the other side of things —and the data show they are reacting.

Nearly half of Americans say they have boycotted a brand because they disagreed with a political or social stand the brand took. And about a quarter of Americans say they have bought products from a company specifically because the company took a political or social stand they agreed with.

Republicans (59%) said they were slightly more likely to boycott than Democrats (44%). And Democrats indicated that they were more likely to buy products to show support than Republicans, 29% versus 23%.

Independents, perhaps the least likely to have a dog in the nation’s culture wars, were also the least likely to say they have done either thing. Only 32% of independents said they had boycotted a brand, and only 17% said they had bought from a brand specifically to show support.

To be clear, this is more than just a “what if” exercise in 2023. This year, several brands representing a variety of different kinds of products have been called out by activists or politicians for the stands they have taken.

Beyond the Bud Light boycott, Target faced a backlash from conservatives when the store sold clothing and merchandise that was supportive of the LGBTQ community during Pride Month.

In the world of media, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was so unhappy with what he perceived as Disney’s “wokeness” that he tried to strip away some of Disney World’s autonomy and long-time tax perks (only to be outmaneuvered, at least so far, by Disney). And Fox News faced anger from conservatives when it removed host Tucker Carlson from the air.

And in the world of food and beverages, Chick-fil-A faced online ire when someone on social media posted that the company had hired a new VP in charge of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. (It turned out the company had already had someone in that position.) Meanwhile, Starbucks faced a call for a boycott from conservatives over an ad campaign that supported inclusion for transgender people.

Of course, boycotting or buying goods and services from companies is not a game everyone can play equally. When a person or family lives closer to the margins, what they buy is often more a matter of what’s in the bank account than personal beliefs. That may be one reason why those with less money are more opposed to brands taking stands. They’d rather not be bothered.

Looking at different income levels, adults making less than $30,000 a year were the most likely to say it was inappropriate for companies to take stands on political, social and cultural issues, with 66% in that group feeling that way. Those with the highest incomes, $75,000 or more, were more mixed in their feelings: 51% said such stands are inappropriate and 41% said they were appropriate. 

The other income groups were between those two on the question, but there seems to be a growing sense that companies taking issue stands are appropriate as incomes climb.

And regardless of how Americans feel about companies taking issue stands today, there is evidence that the practice may become more common in the future. 

Among Americans in the 18-to-34-year-old range, there are very mixed feeling on the practice — 48% say they think taking such stands in inappropriate, while 43% say they find it appropriate. Compare that to the gap among the oldest of those surveyed, those 65-and-older.

Among those older Americans, 68% say they think it is inappropriate for companies to take such stands, while only 18% say it is appropriate. Americans between the ages of 35 and 64 fell somewhere between those two poles.

In other words, younger adults, the consumers brands tend to prize most highly because they represent the future, seem to be more open to the idea of corporate issue stands. At the very least, they are not strongly opposed as group. That suggests the age of brands taking social stands isn’t likely to end soon.

To be clear, this issue is more complicated that partisan views or views by age group. Brands may take political, social or cultural stands for a variety of reasons. They may be driven by the strong feelings of their leadership. They may be trying to woo or retain employees. They may be a brand with a niche customer base that desires specific social stands. Or it could be some combination of all three reasons. 

Regardless, 2023 has shown us how the nation’s red/blue culture wars have merged with the nation’s consumer culture. And even if they are uneasy with it, the data suggest both Democrats and Republicans have engaged on a new battleground that may be with us for some time. 

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