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What’s Wrong with Research on Consumer Preference on Corporate Social Justice? Social Justice and Marketing Part 1

By Augie Ray | May 17, 2022 | 0 Comments

Marketers face a growing demand for their brands to have a voice on contentious social justice issues. As a result, marketers must navigate challenging questions of consumer expectations, stakeholder demands and brand health in an era of corporate social justice. There is no commonly understood definition, but corporate social justice encompasses the organizational values, attitudes and behaviors that contribute to the fair, equitable treatment of all stakeholders within and outside the organization.

Pressure has been rising for marketers and brands to “take a stand.” Some marketers have done so with decidedly mixed results for their brands. We’ve seen Nike bring social justice into its advertising and succeed, while Pepsi faced quick and considerable backlash when it leveraged social justice topics in its advertising.

We explored US consumers’ purchase decisions, both positively and negatively, about brands taking (or not taking) stands on today’s most contentious social justice issues. Before diving into the data, it’s important to note that, regardless of if and how corporate social justice drives customer preference, there are many reasons why your organization should embrace social justice issues.

Gartner researches the topic of social justice from many different perspectives, and we’ve found that embracing social justice issues can improve your culture and help you attract and retain talent. For example, 60% of employees reported improved engagement among peers after witnessing employer involvement in societal issues. And 68% of employees would consider quitting their current job and working with an organization with a stronger viewpoint on the social issues that matter most to them. But with the growing call for marketers to bring social causes into their brand voice, we felt it was essential to study how corporate social justice affects consumer purchases. 

Why study this when so many studies of corporate social justice (and related topics like corporate social responsibility) are readily available? We evaluated studies of corporate social justice – many produced by agencies and consultants who wish to earn business helping brands become more active in these topics – and found they are flawed for two reasons: 

  • Social Desirability Bias: You can’t ask what consumers think they want brands to do on social justice topics–they will respond with answers that feel right, are associated with less guilt and match their aspirations (even if their actual actions fall short.) Social desirability bias is a well-known research bias that can produce answers that skew the research analysis and exaggerate the urgency for action that consumers expect.
  • Topic polarity: Another issue with many studies is that they ignore how polarized consumers are on sensitive social justice topics. One study found that 60% of consumers consider a brand’s stand on Black Lives Matter when making purchase decisions. First, I don’t believe that. I think there’s a healthy dose of social desirability bias in that finding. More to the point, it’s not enough to say people will make decisions based on a brand’s response to BLM with consumers so deeply divided on what they believe and want. Some wish brands to have a loud voice in support of BLM, while others want the brands they buy to stay out of the issue or oppose the tenets of BLM. It’s not enough to tell marketers that consumers care about a topic; you have to find out how they care. 

I hope you’ll enjoy this series on marketers’ role in corporate social justice and how these issues impact consumer purchases. I’ll continue the series tomorrow.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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