Do consumers see brand activism as genuine or simply pandering?

Sources: PepsiCo, Mars, Hasbro, Land O’Lakes
Apr 01, 2021

A survey from Piplsay finds 69 percent of Americans continue to expect brands to take a stand on social issues, but opinions appear mixed on how far they want brands to go.

The report delved into opinions about changes to logos and product names taken by a number of companies, including PepsiCo (Pearl Milling Company), Mars (Ben’s Original), Land O’Lakes, Hasbro (Potato Head), and Conagra (Mrs. Butterworth). The changes aligned with heightened sensitivity around bias and inclusivity, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The survey basically explored the question: Is brand activism convincing enough to impact consumer choices and decisions, or is it merely pandering to the ongoing culture war?

On the pro-activism side, asked how they viewed the changes brands like Pepsico, P&G, Mars and Hasbro have made to their logos or product names to address social issues like racism and gender-neutrality, 49 percent viewed the changes positively. Only 17 percent viewed the changes negatively and 34 percent were neutral.

However, asked for their personal opinion about the growing trend of brand activism:

  • Only 31 percent felt such actions can help bring real change; 
  • Roughly the same number (31 percent) felt brands are giving in/cashing in on the culture war; 
  • Seventeen percent felt such actions will not bring real change;
  • Twenty-one percent were unsure what to think.

Asked how strongly they expect such brand actions now compare to the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, 38 percent had higher expectations, nine percent, lower expectations; 31 percent, the same expectations; and 22 percent, no expectations.

Brand action on social stands has been on the rise in recent years with catalysts also including global warming and the #MeToo movement.

Other recent studies around brand activism include:

  • A fall 2019 survey of marketers from World Media Group found alignment with social issues as one of the top three benefits of a content campaign, alongside brand engagement and changing perceptions;
  • A survey of consumers taken last August by the PR firm Edelman found 77 percent saying it is “deeply important that companies respond to racial injustice to earn or keep their trust.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can brands best judge when activism is appropriate versus excessive? Do you think that most brand activism today is seen by most consumers as genuine or just pandering?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Brands should really aim for common sense: treat everyone equally, be fair and just, and try to make the communities where they do business better places."
"I think most consumers don’t care whether Potato Head are renamed. In fact, I’m willing to bet a good number of them see it as Cancel Culture run amok."
"It’s appropriate when it is in keeping with your corporate core values. And I like to know the core values of the places I give my money to."

Join the Discussion!

31 Comments on "Do consumers see brand activism as genuine or simply pandering?"

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Rick Watson

Authenticity requires honesty which means risk and vulnerability, I believe that is the key element. Activism requires action in defense of a cause that is not always universally agreed upon or understood, which also requires risk.

Risk is anathema to most brands, and so they tend to shy away from it until it’s too late (public tide has turned against it).

I think many brands could use risk as a signal, and ask themselves a few questions:

  • What is the payoff for this risk if we are right about a particular trend, cause, or idea?
  • What is the risk for not doing something?
  • What is true to our mission, as consumers would recognize it?
  • What do we have to say that is unique?
  • How could we set a positive example in the world?

The big challenge for many brands is they “drink their own Kool-Aid” thinking their corporate values on the wall are recognized by consumers. They need to be demonstrated every day.

Neil Saunders

Brands should really aim for common sense: treat everyone equally, be fair and just, and try to make the communities where they do business better places. Sometimes these things will intersect with politics and that can be problematic – especially where brands have a large and diverse consumer base – but it is important to take a stand on issues that matter.

All that said, brands should also push back when the circumstances warrant it. Trader Joe’s refusing to change its brand names on Chinese and Italian foods, is a good example.

Ultimately, brands have their own personality and the stands they take and the policies they support help shape that personality.

Suresh Chaganti

Customers can sniff inauthentic brands from a distance. When the public posturing is not based on the core values, it will result in inconsistent messaging and perception. It will feel fake and will backfire.

Some brands (Nike, Patagonia, etc.) wear their attitude on their sleeve and how they come across feels natural, and it is reflected in all aspects of customer experience, and probably internally as well.

Jeff Weidauer

Most of the examples given here are just brand reactions to social changes, not brand activism. For these brands, not changing would be tone-deaf. Real brand activism is rare, such as when CVS stopped selling cigarettes. That’s the sort of brand activity that drives meaningful change.

Jeff Sward

Well said. Commentary that is consistent with an existing brand promise is one thing. Activism that is intended to drive behavior change is on a whole different level. In my view, recent comments from Coke and Delta regarding the new Georgia voting laws rise to the level of activism.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 4 months ago

I think this comment is bang on. There is a difference between brand activism and brand re-activism.
In the short term, when there is more to be lost by inaction, that is usually re-activism (and more likely to be seen as pandering — but let’s not forget that pandering works…). In the short term, when there is more to be lost by actually taking action, that is usually true activism. The upside of long term outlooks for true activism can be quite substantial, but because it requires true belief, dedication, and alignment throughout an organization to achieve.

Paula Rosenblum

I think Delta airlines and Coca-Cola win the prize this week for taking a stand against the new voting law in Georgia. Truth be told, I’m not even sure most people realize Coca-Cola is headquartered in Georgia. Delta of course, is another story.

Do I think it was appropriate? Yes I do. Do I think it took some courage? Yes, I do.

If I were on the side of the law would I think it was pandering? Maybe. But then, Hobby Lobby took a stand, and has taken the heat.

It’s appropriate when it is in keeping with your corporate core values. And I like to know the core values of the places I give my money to.

Cathy Hotka

When there are important and relevant issues, like the Georgia voting restrictions, customers expect brands to take a stand. I’m sure there are meetings ongoing at The Home Depot’s HQ on this topic, as we speak.

Paula Rosenblum

Hopefully, and Lowe’s.

Ryan Mathews

Paula, while I almost always agree with you, I have to disagree this time about Delta. Its first statement actually endorsed the new restrictive voting laws in Georgia. True, they walked it back, but the walk-back felt like way too little, way too late. And, in all fairness, Coke’s first statement was sort of motherhood and apple pie too, and did not attack the new laws as much as it promoted the idea of free and fair elections. Lots of gray on an issue that should be black and white.

Ben Ball

Or simply left alone. Just because I live in Tennessee doesn’t mean I have to be a Vol’s fan. Just because I am headquartered in Georgia doesn’t mean I have to speak out on state politics.

Scott Norris

On issues like what color to paint the undersides of overpasses, the state muffin, whom to contract a data center to, I agree. Issues that directly affect my employees’ and customers’ well-being and ability to exercise their rights? Darned right I’d need to raise my voice, because that ultimately affects my operations and my revenues.

The Georgia House yesterday voted to rescind a fuel tax exemption which would have cost Delta tens of millions, just because of their tepid statement — which only proved to Delta that back-room persuasion isn’t enough anymore in Georgia and forced their more direct statements today.

Paula Rosenblum

Fair enough.

Gene Detroyer

How about just doing the right thing? Sometimes marketers get carried away. I find the Uncle Ben’s “We’ve listened. We’ve learned. We’re changing” pandering. Too much patting themselves on the back. What is wrong with just changing the label on going on with business? This is greenwashing to the Nth degree. Live it, don’t talk about it.

I have an entirely different opinion on company activism, meaning the company position is all-in on the issue. Companies and other organizations are pushing back against the North Carolina bathroom law, Coca-Cola and Delta and others are pushing back against the Georgia voting law. Nike supported American values with the support of Colin Kaepernick and now even U.S. Olympic athletes are permitted (permitted?) to kneel.

DeAnn Campbell

I’m with you, I hate those trite marketing lines, they really do sound pandering. Rather than delete her they should have put a business suit on Aunt Jemima and repositioned her as a savvy CEO leading a multi-billion dollar conglomerate.

Gene Detroyer

I wish we had a laughing emoji to reply with.

Gary Sankary

After the death of George Floyd many companies announced changes to strategies, hiring and marketing practices. Personally I’m delighted they took a step back to address institutional racism and where their practices may have contributed. We know that with consumers, with increasing frequency especially for younger consumers, social issues certainly influence their buying decisions. These changes are are important and honestly, not difficult to make. I hope they’re also indicative of bigger policy changes in areas that are more difficult implement like hiring and policy.

Dick Seesel

The rebranding of Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima was long overdue. Both brand images evoked antebellum slavery, like something out of “Gone With The Wind.” But the other products that have changed their names or imagery smack of insincerity to this observer — for example, the Native American woman on the Land O’ Lakes packaging did not strike me as insulting, unlike the outgoing Cleveland Indians logo.

Speaking up proactively would be a more forceful way to bring about change. Atlanta-based companies like Coca-Cola and Delta are speaking out belatedly about the “voting rights” legislation in Georgia, but only after being shamed into making statements. Where was their opposition when the law was being crafted and debated in the first place?

Rich Duprey

Except in racing to be politically correct, Quaker Oats steamrolled the accomplishments of a black woman, Nancy Green, who was born a slave and overcame real racism. It’s her image that appeared on the syrup and pancake mix and was subsequently erased. not some “Gone With the Wind” trope. Same with the Land o’ Lakes Indian woman that was removed from the butter packages. By trying to be woke, the company chose to replace a symbol of Indian heritage and history with an image of a white farmer. Pretty colonialist, no?

As for Delta, they were consulted about the law before it was enacted and even issued a statement in support of the law days before it was signed. Now they come out saying they stand against it.

Lisa Goller

As consumers increasingly shop with their values, brand communications now affect strategic success.

Consumers can sense when activism is a tacked-on, trendy tactic vs. a sincere strategy that permeates their brand. That’s why brands need to reflect on whether their activism is driven by a fear of missing out on a “fad” or by a long-term commitment to doing the right thing.

Ricardo Belmar

Sometimes it’s as simple as doing the right thing. Even when long overdue, like the name changes for Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima. Brands have an identity in the minds of consumers and they need to live up to that identity. In some cases, like Nike, or Patagonia, that brand identity is clear, and their activism is not just expected it is embraced. For other brands, it can be unexpected and seem fake if not done with genuine authenticity. That requires explaining why you are doing what you are doing clearly. Even if it means accepting fault for not taking action earlier. During moments of great public activism, such as BLM during last summer, it can seem like pandering when brands take notice and take action, but in the long-term what will consumers remember? They will remember the outcome more than the reason why the brand took the action. In that sense, brands need to show they are on the right side of history and do the right thing.

Joe Skorupa

Ricardo, I am not disagreeing with you overall, but I don’t think there is anything simple about taking a stand and doing the right thing. It’s not about making statements and changing logos. The marketplace and the consumer have changed. Traditional retail thinking about taking social stands, based on “it could be bad for business by upsetting some segment of shoppers,” has been replaced by the reality that if a retailer doesn’t take a clear proactive stand, then shoppers and activists may take it for them, as demonstrated by the influence of viral media. I urge you to examine the incredibly comprehensive diversity steps being taken by Target and Walmart, the clear leaders in retail in so many ways.

Ricardo Belmar
Joe, I agree with you. I think the issue is about what actions are visible to consumers so they know the brand is, in fact, taking action. Unless brands do what you point out Target and Walmart have demonstrated, all they see are the statements issued by PR departments and CEOs, and logo changes. But yes, that’s not to say those same brands are doing what’s right to demonstrate how they are being more inclusive and supporting of causes. For example, look at what Patagonia does to show their environmental support. Or what Nike shows us in their ad campaigns about doing what you believe in. We could all write many pages of text on how brands can and should demonstrate their sincerity in supporting social activism and going beyond mere statements. My point was just to highlight that brands shouldn’t try to hide away and do nothing. As you rightly pointed out, consumers think and act differently now and they will notice which brands take action and which do not. They’ll show their response… Read more »
Liz Crawford

I agree with Jeff – these examples aren’t activism, they’re reactions to the social climate. To me, activism is more like Ben & Jerry’s 2018 Pecan Resist flavor, which was dedicated to inclusion. The ice cream brand has been at the forefront of social justice for years now. It’s not about morphing to stay current.

DeAnn Campbell

Everyday citizens are realizing their dollars can impact meaningful change more quickly than the government voting process. And with the availability of online shopping and online info we can easily find a retailer who shares our values, but also see how authentic that retailer stays to those stated values. “Faking it” is no longer an option since it’s too easy to see whether a company walks the talk. Better to be legit about one’s efforts. There is more to lose than to gain.