More than half of US consumers (58%) want brands to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose, but the way issues are framed can be politically polarizing, with ‘progressive’ language driving a dividing wedge between Democrats and Republicans by up to 32%. However, this gap can be closed to 8% by using more ‘centrist’ language.
This is one of the key findings revealed in Poking the Bear, the latest report from global purpose consultancy Revolt. Research* conducted by Revolt revealed just how much people’s political views shape their attitudes to key purpose-related issues, such as climate change and LGBTQ+ equality. Importantly though, the research also showed the extent to which simple changes to marketing language can significantly reduce the political polarization and increase unity in attitudes towards those issues.
With almost half of large companies saying they have experienced ESG backlash and expect it to intensify, some corporates are going into purpose-related hibernation, rather than risk the perceived reputational damage from ‘poking the bear’. But with consumers’ and employees’ shifting expectations and so many critical issues now requiring brand and business support, hibernation is not an option. Revolt’s research reveals that rather than getting trapped in a cycle of ‘purpose paralysis’, and pausing or abandoning purposeful marketing and communications, brands can make important progress by shifting language to bring more people with them and avoid backlash.
Unsurprisingly, the research showed that sexuality and gender identity rights is the most politically polarizing issue in the US today, with just 27% of right-leaning voters ranking this issue as important versus 64% of left-leaning voters. Climate change was the second most polarizing issue, with 45% of right-leaning respondents saying it was important, compared with 81% of left-leaning respondents.
For those brands with general market audiences, less polarizing issues are often considered to be the most appropriate to support. However, Revolt’s research revealed how more ‘grizzly’ issues can be ‘tamed’ by careful and pragmatic shifts in language to align with universal values.
Looking at one of the top two most polarizing issues, climate change with a polarization gap of nearly 40%, using ‘centrist’ language makes the issue much less polarizing and much more important to respondents. For example, support for “The individual right to clean air and clean water” – an issue adjacent to climate change – was the most unifying statement tested, with 85% of left-leaners and 78% of right-leaning voters in support – a polarization gap of just 7%. Similarly, when phrased in the centrist language “Securing a safe climate for your family’s future”, climate change becomes the 5th most important issue among all respondents, while the more progressive frame of “Fighting for climate justice for all” sees climate fall to 17th place.
Overall, Revolt found that more ‘centrist’ language helped to increase the importance of all issues with right-leaning US voters. Five issues in particular increased in importance among right-leaners with more centrist framing: Education, LGBTQ+ equality, air and water pollution, climate change and workers’ rights.
More surprisingly, across the full range of issues tested, not only did centrist language perform better with right-leaning respondents, but it was also more appealing to those on the left. This brings into question whether progressive language is really serving any audience.
The research also revealed the most inherently unifying issues, regardless of language, which include “Government responsibility and debt”, with 72% of right leaning voters saying this was important, compared with 76% of those who are left leaning – just 4% political difference – and “Care for the elderly”, with 75% of right-leaners believing it to be important and 82% of left-leaners in agreement.
In addition to understanding the bear you’re poking and shifting the language (taming your grizzlies), Revolt’s research revealed three other key approaches for brands to successfully embrace purpose-related issues in the age of polarization. ‘Bear-proof your strategy’ – ensure your chosen cause is connected to your brand and earn the right to play in this space. ‘Plan for the bear to wake up’ – brands with a crisis management plan in place are much more likely to survive an attack. And, ‘have your pack’s back’ – build a community around you to fall back on and provide support in moments of need.
Freya Williams, Fractional Chief Strategy Officer, US, Revolt, said: “For brands with a purpose mission, winning the war of ideas is critical in progressing action. From Revolt’s research, we can see that moderate language means majority support. While progressive language may seem like a stronger articulation of the cause, it isn’t supporting purposeful action as even Democrat-leaning voters view issues as more important when framed with more moderate language. Brands have the opportunity to use these insights to unite rather than divide Americans”
Richard Arscott, President, US, Revolt, said: “When terms like ESG and woke are being weaponized to divide and disrupt the transformation to more purposeful ways of doing business, framing has never been more important. Finding the right words can mean the difference between uniting a movement for change or provoking a backlash.”
*About The Research The report findings and recommendations for brands are informed by conversations with 20+ purpose, ESG and sustainability communicators, and quantitative research among 1000 US consumers. It also uses research from Revolt’s 2023 Causes That Count research, which also featured quantitative research among 1000 US consumers.