Results from the latest edition of The CMO Survey show that many marketing leaders are divided on the responsibility of marketers to promote national unity
President Biden and congressional leaders have issued repeated calls to build greater national unity at a time when the U.S. is intensely divided politically, economically and socially. The nation continues to grapple with difficult issues such as COVID-19, the debate over reopenings and vaccine disinformation; election challenges and controversies; police violence targeting African Americans; and a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, among others.
Concurrently, corporate activism in America has reached its highest levels of acceptability among marketing leaders, according to recent findings from the 26th edition of The CMO Survey. It may seem like an opportune time for companies to jump in and promote national unity—but results from the survey indicate that marketers are unwilling to do so.
Join Christine Moorman, Russ Klein, Philip Kotler and other thought leaders discuss the role of marketers in promoting national unity during a special “Marketers and National Unity” webcast, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. CST.
When asked how important it is for companies to use marketing to promote national unity, marketers themselves are divided. On a seven-point scale where 1 represents “not at all,” and 7 “very important,” the average across respondents was right in the middle (4.0). This lukewarm response is not because marketers are undecided, but because their opinions differ widely, with the largest group (22.8%) reporting it is “not at all important” for companies to use marketing to encourage national unity. B2C services companies and organizations with a sizeable portion of internet sales tend to believe it is slightly more important (4.4 and 4.3, respectively).
This tepid response turns to outright rejection, however, when marketing leaders are asked to report the extent to which their own company’s marketing activities were or are being used to encourage national unity, where 1 is “not at all,” and 7 is “a great deal”—the average drops to 2.2, and a full 57.4% indicated “no activity” and only 4% reported “a great deal of activity.”
Of the 42.6% of marketers who reported that their companies are taking some action, 66.3% said the activities consisted of eliminating divisive language in their marketing—48.8% noted they put unity messages at the forefront of marketing, 22.5% cited molding their brand around the idea of national unity, and 8.8% introduced new products and services focused on unity.
Are Marketers Right to Sit on the Sidelines?
To answer this question, we followed up this edition of The CMO Survey with two smaller surveys involving a sample of 127 U.S. consumers and a second group of 55 MBA students from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. We report the results of these two follow-up surveys together because the results were remarkably similar. Specifically, when we used the same seven-point scale and asked about the importance of companies using marketing to promote national unity, the average score was 4.3 for both general consumers and MBA students. However, compared to marketing leaders, these results were far less polarized—only 9.3% said it was “not at all important,” compared to 22.8% of marketers. Further, when asked more directly whether they believe companies should or should not use marketing to encourage national unity, 63% of consumers and 60% of students responded “yes”—a stark contrast to the 57.4% of marketers who indicated that their companies are doing nothing on this front.
The reasons behind this positive consumer and student sentiment include both principle-based and more consequentialist viewpoints. Forty-one percent pointed to companies’ power and the size of their following, noting that companies have an outsized influence on markets and that they should use it to increase unity. One consumer said, “They have the platform to reach a lot of people. They have the money to make an impact.” Another keyed in on trust: “We are a very divided country. People listen to advertisements from companies they trust.”
Some 40% also highlighted America’s need for unity and said encouraging it was simply “the right thing to do.” Conservatives in favor of such activism keyed most strongly on this reasoning. One such conservative said, “It creates a better world. I think a lot of companies recently have tended to pick certain sides, which alienates half the country and creates further division, so a company that focuses on unity would help make America a better place to live.” Another consumer said, “I think that companies have a responsibility to strengthen the society they profit from. It’s easy to divide people, and those that unify us will increase their market share while benefiting society.” Other common reasons include a belief that such promotion is good for business (24%) and that it is important for companies to represent the community they are in (7%).
For the almost 40% who said they did not believe companies should use marketing to encourage national unity, 62% took a “shareholder approach,” saying companies need to be focused on growing their primary business or on making a profit. Twenty-five percent took it a half-step further, saying companies should stay out of national or political issues altogether. A quarter also said it felt inauthentic to stress unity messages. One consumer comment captured both sentiments: “A company is there to make profit. I find it disingenuous for companies to join in social issues to make a profit. Companies should be there to donate or contribute to the general good of society such as giving for the poor or other disenfranchised groups.”
Some liberals believed unity messages could backfire, using high-friction words such as patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia to portray how they believe it might ultimately lead to further polarization. A few consumers and students also pointed out that many influential companies are global. That creates further complexity in approach and messaging. A national unity message risks not only falling flat with its intended U.S. audience, but also creating controversies overseas due to different cultural norms, beliefs and expectations.
How Should Marketers Respond?
Marketers are in a tough spot: Many consumers may want or even expect some level of activism, but there are risks of action and inaction. What should marketers do? Every business school student knows the answer is almost always “It depends,” because each company has unique customers, history and capabilities. But there are some important ways for marketers to think about this issue.
Reasons to Promote National Unity
Corporations are able to shoulder more responsibility
The New York Times recently reported that calls for unity from corporate America carry some of the “symbolic heft” for Americans. As reported in the Times, the chief executive of PwC, Tim Ryan, is part of a cadre of firms and business leaders who vowed to suspend donations to congressional members who opposed certification of Electoral College results. He promoted a message of unity: “I believe this is the best country in the world, and we can’t let all that go to hell in a handbasket,” he said. “We need to stabilize. We need certainty.”
Corporations have significant influence in the marketplace
The Edelman Trust Barometer says companies are in great position to make a difference and CEOs are the ones who need to step up. Edelman’s annual research report says businesses have become more trusted than government agencies, NGOs and the media. Business is seen as the only institution that received a positive score in competence and ethics. Edelman asserts that this is driven in part by hyper-partisanship and growing distrust in leadership across many institutions, even including religious leadership. Given this void of trust in other institutions, 61% of respondents said they felt CEOs should step in and take the lead—very similar to the 63% of our survey respondents who felt companies should encourage unity.
Corporations can encourage engagement
The most acceptable type of brand activism—to encourage citizens to vote—was deemed appropriate by 92.9% of marketers and has been pursued by the likes of Farmers Insurance and Coca-Cola, perhaps because it is seen as benign. “Getting out the vote” is similar to “national unity” because both seem non-partisan and universally beneficial, meaning it might be a safer route. In fact, looking across both our customer and student samples, liberals and conservatives are almost equally likely to believe marketing should encourage national unity (61% and 59% respectively).
Reasons Not to Promote National Unity
Marketers worry that corporate activism may be poorly received
Activism is generally not highly acceptable among marketers despite rising levels and high-profile headlines. Politically focused brand activism is considered acceptable by just 27.7% of marketers—the highest level in The CMO Survey history since we began asking the question three years ago when it was 17.4%. Further, the kind of activism that marketers believe is appropriate varies. Again, encouraging citizens to vote is deemed highly appropriate, but only 43.5% say it is appropriate to support specific legislation and 26% approve making changes to products or services, allowing executives or employees to speak out, or using marketing communications to speak out on issues.
Corporations need to customize their messaging
Marketers cannot be everything to everyone. Advanced technology and data analytics continue to be implemented to segment consumers and personalize products, services and messaging. Following this trend, some might argue that companies may be better off considering the social interests of specific segments of their customers, rather than emphasizing a broad-based focus on national unity.
Unity messages may be too simplistic
Unity may be seen as too traditional or even naive to the point that it would be more dangerous for brands to promote it than to take a bold stance on a more divisive topic. Recent, well-documented attempts by brands such as Gap, Oreo and Pepsi to promote national unity through ads that feature their products as symbols or catalysts in bringing America together were met with tremendous backlash across social and traditional media outlets. Critics say these ads are full of empty promises, are self-serving, promote further divisiveness or ignore the realities of modern America. Regardless of what you think of their execution, the takeaway seems to be to tread lightly.
Unity messages may be seen as hypocritical
National unity is difficult to uphold when it conflicts with your company’s specific needs. Despite coalition promises to suspend donations to election objectors, the Los Angeles Times documented a number of companies that have already reneged on that promise due to pressures to lobby for their own company needs. Business growth, it seems, trumps conviction, which could alienate consumers more than if companies had not taken a stand at all.
Unity messages may be divisive
Brand activism may not inherently be very unifying. While we previously indicated promoting voting was largely similar to promoting national unity, in 2020 it was also distinctly different in important ways. In fact, promoting voting proved to be quite partisan and divisive with complications stemming from COVID-19, mail-in ballots and allegations of voter fraud.
How Marketers Can Successfully Promote Unity
If you intend to promote unity, here are our recommendations. First, strategize how you can make your push toward national unity seem genuine. This likely means that your company does more than just talk about national unity; instead, take actions that support unification across multiple fronts that customers and investors can observe. Unlike Pepsi or Oreo’s salesy approach where a brand becomes a uniting hero, actions will likely come across as more genuine if they go beyond the normal benefits of your product or service and are not so directly tied to profits.
Second, seek alignment with your current customers’ needs and aspirations for their relationship with you. This likely involves doing research to understand how customers will interpret your message and actions. Pretesting different strategies with customers is one way to reduce the risk. Such pretesting would have likely revealed the flaw in Jeep’s attempt to use Bruce Springsteen in “The Reunited States of America” Super Bowl ad, which relied heavily on Christian symbols and caused an avalanche of criticism.
Similarly, it is important to understand how your customers think about unification. Do they see it as forcing relationships with political and social adversaries or creating a bridge to understanding so that disunited parties can move forward together? There is quite a bit of distance between those two inferences, which can vary widely by brand.
Third, do not forget to study your potential future customers. They are likely younger, more progressive, and more likely to align with companies doing the civic footwork they value. Some 46% of millennials and 42% of Gen Z members expect brands to speak out, while only 32% of Gen X and 21% of baby boomers do. Of course, when ethnicity is considered, these metrics change considerably. Most Hispanics, LGTBQ+, Asian Americans and African Americans expect brands to choose sides on social positions.
Fourth, if you are not going to promote unity, consider the following points. Will you hurt your company, its brand position and future revenues if a competitor puts marketing dollars behind this cause? How will inaction send signals to current and future employees about the type of company they work for and its values? Will you damage morale, contribute to a divisive workplace, harm recruitment or face more attrition due to your lack of engagement? Employees are increasingly using social media to take employers to task for their apathy—or voting with their feet.
As with many issues, there is no single position for organizations to take regarding national unity. Perhaps, then, it is best to take the advice of Polonius in “Hamlet,” who urges his son, “To thine own self be true.” You can do so by using your organization’s brand as a north star for deciding how to navigate the fractured marketplace, work to heal divisions and create greater community among the consumers you serve.
The CMO Survey collects and disseminates the opinions of top marketers in order to predict the future of markets, track marketing excellence and improve the value of marketing in firms and in society. To view a complete set of reports for The CMO Survey, visit cmosurvey.org/results.
For additional commentary on the national unity findings from the latest CMO Survey, read AMA CEO Russ Klein’s Marketing News column.