Should Companies Use Their Influence to Unify the U.S.?

Half of consumers expect brands to take action, but marketing leaders are divided

September 13, 2021
animation of US map and bandage unrolling across states

It has been 50 years since Coca-Cola’s iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign, built around a TV commercial in which ethnically and racially diverse singers harmonize about something they all have in common – their love for the sweet, bubbly soft drink.

The ad is an oft-referenced example of the power marketers have to shape not only what consumers buy, but how they think and feel about larger issues.

With the U.S. confronting a new era of political and social discord, many leaders are calling for national unity. The CMO Survey, which is directed by Christine Moorman, a marketing professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, asked marketing leaders whether they believe it is important for companies to use marketing to encourage national unity.

Moorman shared insights from The CMO Survey, plus additional consumer research she conducted on the topic of unity in an article for the American Marketing Association and in the following Q&A. 

Q: What are marketers doing right now to bring the country together?

A: According to The CMO Survey, consumers and marketing leaders have become increasingly supportive of brands taking a public position on social or political issues. However, according to results from the 26th edition of the survey, marketing leaders may make an exception when it comes to creating unity for the U.S.

Right now, the country is confronting extreme divisiveness in politics, over how to control COVID-19, and how communities respond to issues like police violence against African-Americans and increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Our most recent research shows that while almost two-thirds of consumers believe companies should use marketing to unify the country, marketers themselves are divided on this issue. About 23% of marketing leaders in The CMO Survey said it’s not at all important for companies to use marketing to encourage national unity, compared to about 9% of consumers who said it’s not at all important.

It turns out very few companies are using marketing to address national discord. Just 4% of marketing leaders said their companies were working 'a great deal' to encourage national unity with their marketing efforts, while 57% said their companies are doing 'nothing at all' to unify the U.S. right now.

Animated GIF of red, white, and blue bandaidWhat is stopping brands from using their influence to create unity in the U.S.?

There are many factors that could hold companies back from engaging in this way. It can be risky both to take action and to sit on the sidelines of this conversation, especially if your competitor is speaking up.

There’s a chance that messages about unity may be rejected by consumers as naïve or even hypocritical. Efforts by brands such as Oreo, which released an ad before the 2020 U.S. presidential election that featured a donkey and an elephant sharing Oreo cookies, have famously flopped. Brands need to test how audiences are going to respond. Testing by Jeep might have improved the reception of a Super Bowl ad with Bruce Springsteen that called for a ‘ReUnited States of America.’

Research in the Journal of Marketing also shows shareholders do not like corporate activism in general. They think of it as a distraction from the core mission of the company. But when you look at the impact of activism on sales growth outcomes, we see that many consumers react positively to it.

Going forward, brands should also think about their future customers and their increasing expectations that brands take positions on social issues. In surveys we conducted with consumers and graduate students, 41% said powerful companies should use their influence to increase unity. In those surveys, 42% of respondents in Generation Z and 46% of millennials supported brands taking a stance on social issues compared to smaller portions of baby boomers and Generation X-ers.

Are marketers in a position to create unity?

If marketing professionals don’t do more, who is going to do it? The Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that consumers don’t trust politicians, government agencies, non-profits, or the media. Businesses have become more trusted than any of these institutions. We have a crisis, and from my point of view, we need leadership from business.

I want to bring up one case study that is not about a brand, but about an issue – the issue of same-sex marriage, which shows the remarkable way the country’s attitudes flipped. In 1988, only 12% of people in the U.S. thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry. By 2004, it was 60%, and today it’s somewhere between 60% and 70%. The gay rights movement worked hard for this and of course, legal precedents were established, but another reason is that the gay rights movement focused on a point of similarity. What did same-sex couples want? They wanted to love each other, share a life, and have a family. They focused on these ideas. Rather than talking about more divisive ideas like legal rights and religious rights, they focused on these ideas, which everyone could understand and unite around. This helped turn the tide—they cut in on the issue that reached people. They looked for the similarities and avoided points of difference.

I think marketers may need to take a little bit more risk. I believe we can do it with sensitivity and all the great insight that marketing offers to take a stand on important issues. I think we have to do more, and use our best skills to do so. That is a marketer’s strength – to find that kernel of similarity that has the opportunity to bind us together. There will be differences of opinion on how to go about it, but I think we need to work harder at finding those points of connection for a better world.

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