With the “Worst Year Ever” (2020, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear) in the rearview mirror, Americans were less than a week into a hopeful 2021 when a familiar sense of chaos and uncertainty took hold once again. While deeply troubling to most people, the events that transpired at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th resembled something that Americans have been fearing for months. When we tracked consumer concerns around the 2020 Presidential election – both prior to and in the immediate aftermath of election day – we found that the primary concern for most people was “violence in reaction to the election outcome.” (See: Brands Must Carefully Consider Responses to Consumers’ Top U.S. Election Concerns, subscription required)
As Americans work through the aftermath of the day, many brands find themselves in an all-too-familiar position: compelled to speak out about a cultural event but unsure if they should or how to do so in such a highly polarized moment. Conventional wisdom might suggest that it’s best for brands to just be quiet, and many have done so, even going so far as to pause media buys and halt campaigns. But while there is value in avoiding messaging that may be perceived as insensitive, staying completely silent may no longer be an option – consumers have come to expect and even value brand statements and actions relating to social and cultural issues; in fact, according to our 2020 Consumer Values and Lifestyle survey, 54% of US consumers agree with the statement, “I believe brands should take the lead in solving key issues in culture and society today.”
When asked what brands should be doing in the aftermath of the insurrection, respondents to Gartner’s Consumer Community panel primarily expressed expectations related to safety and security. This includes ensuring the safety of employees, customers, and any physical premises. Given the uncertainty surrounding the coming weeks, this expectation applies to security measures going forward in addition to confirming safety in the wake of what’s already occurred. This should be considered table stakes for brands before any further steps are taken; certainly a brand shouldn’t be commenting publicly before ensuring the safety of those associated with the brand.
With safety assurances in place, a brand may consider external messaging – in this case, the preferred approach from consumers being one of unity and peace. However, brands must understand that messaging about unity shouldn’t translate to a call to sweep issues under the rug and ignore the sense of tension and uncertainty consumers are navigating (a trap Gap fell into with its roundly-criticized election tweet), nor should it express a sense of false equivalency in the effort to show tolerance for both sides. In this context, unity pertains not resolving polarization, but to the shared desire to preserve democracy, and condemnation of lawlessness. To that end, brands that have not yet spoken up can be inspired by the likes of Coca-Cola, Verizon, and UPS, among others, who have already made a similar appeal. Even Axe, a brand that was pulled into the fray by a tweet showing a can of their body spray on the scene, responded by condemning violence and supporting democracy and the peaceful transition of power.
It’s worth noting that the reaction to these brands’ efforts has not been universally positive, which is to be expected in such a highly polarized environment. When it comes to messaging around a contentious issue, brands must also anticipate some level of negative response. Ultimately, marketing leaders can use insights about consumers across the sociopolitical spectrum and their polarized values to navigate these issues and prepare for any negative reaction (see: Use Consumer Values to Navigate Political Polarization and Brand Positioning During Cultural Conflict, subscription required).