Companies should focus on employee investment instead of politics, survey finds

24 January 2020 3 min. read
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US customers want businesses to focus on taking care of their employees instead of pursuing politically motivated campaigns, according to a recent survey from communications and public affairs consultancies GS Strategy Group and Plus Communications. The online survey polled 1,000 Americans in December on attitudes toward corporate responsibility and political engagement.

The survey found that, overwhelmingly, customers believe the top corporate responsibility measure is employee benefits and wages.

"This new research shows that companies can boost their image, even in today's polarizing political climate, by focusing on employee well-being," said Danny Diaz, managing partner of Plus Communications.  "Smart companies should take advantage of the booming economy to take care of their employees, not cater to the politics of the moment."

According to the study, taking care of employees appeals to left-of-center customers – and obviously without the risks involved in taking a hard political stance on a divisive issue (e.g. “The Big Mac – now America’s favorite pro-choice burger!”). Treating employees well is a generally uncontroversial stance to take.

Companies should focus on employee investment instead of politics, survey finds

The study found that having a centrist image was key to maintaining a positive image among consumers. The more companies were viewed as neither aligned with Republicans or Democrats, the better their image was among respondents.

"Despite what some talking heads might have you believe, our research shows that companies would do well to steer clear of politically divisive social campaigns," said Greg Strimple, president of GS Strategy Group.  "Investing in employees is a critical way for companies to show customers they have placed a premium on the right priorities."

Aligning a brand with a social cause can seemingly go both ways, though it can have a lot to do with execution. Nike’s “Dream Crazy” ad campaign featuring football player Colin Kaepernick was a resounding success, helping to increase the company’s share value by $6 billion and nabbing an Emmy. Gillette’s January 2019 “toxic masculinity” ads, in contrast, were perhaps an overly-ambitious campaign that alienated a sizeable portion of the firm’s male customers. Most people don’t expect their consumer product ads to scold them for their supposed transgressive behavior. Gillette lost $8 billion in the months that followed.

In an era where it appears younger generations want their companies to take stands on things, maybe it’s more prudent to just say “no.” For one thing, baby boomers and Gen X-ers still exist and buy things; and taking a political stance can sour one or a number of a segments for potential gains in another. If the customer base is all of one generation and political bent, then maybe it makes sense. If the customer base is “men who buy razors,” maybe less so.

Gillette took a gamble and lost. They wanted to position themselves as a bold company, advancing the conversation on “what it means to be a man.” They wanted to be lauded as a socially progressive company.

Instead the campaign was dropped in August after severe backlash and financial losses – having pointedly ignored one of the key touchstones in advertising, related below by Don Draper of TV's Mad Men: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”