Communicating Purpose in the Age of Polarization

Tweaks in messaging can help brands unite the Divided American political groups in the United States.

For brands with a mission, the success of PR and marketing often rests on uniting people behind a common cause, such as climate change or gender equality. But in these polarizing times, political views shape people’s attitudes to purpose-related issues. Rather than bringing people together, research shows that highlighting the seriousness of a cause through outspoken and progressive messaging is actually driving a wedge between Americans at a time when unity is needed.

More than half of U.S. consumers (58 percent) want brands to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose. However, research conducted by the purpose consultancy Revolt shows in its "Poking The Bear" report that progressive language in purpose communications is dividing Republican and Democrat voters up to 32 percent. Even so, this gap can be closed to just seven percent by making changes to the language so the messaging is more centrist.

Revolt conducted research with 20+ purpose, ESG and sustainability communicators, and quantitative research among 1,000 U.S. consumers. We found that sexuality and gender identity rights is the most politically polarizing issue in the U.S., with just 27 percent of right-leaning voters identifying this as important, compared with 64 percent of left-leaning voters. The second most polarizing issue was climate change, with 45 percent of right-leaning respondents regarding it as important, compared with 81 percent of left-leaning respondents.

With such clear division among U.S. consumers, it’s not surprising that some brands are finding themselves in a cycle of “purpose paralysis,” and are pausing or abandoning purposeful marketing and communication. Others are switching purposeful missions and focusing attention on what they see as less contentious causes.

Shifting to Centrist Language

But polarizing issues can be transformed into common causes by pragmatic shifts in language to align with more universal values. For example, with the more progressive frame of “Fighting for climate justice for all,” climate change sits way down in 17th place in the ranking of issues important to respondents. But when phrased in centrist language with “Securing a safe climate for your family’s future,” it jumps to the fifth most important issue.

Looking at the issue of income inequality, using the progressive positioning of “A fair minimum wage rate of $15 an hour across America” ranks just 11th in important issues. But if it’s changed to the centrist phrase “All workers receiving a fair day pay for a fair day’s work,” the issue rises to the number one position.

Across the full range of issues, not only did centrist language perform better with right-leaning respondents, it was also more appealing to those on the left. While progressive language may seem like a stronger articulation of the cause, it isn’t supporting purposeful action, as even Democrat-leaning voters view issues as more important when framed with more moderate language.

Ensure You Have ‘Permission to Play’ 

For brands, understanding issues and uniting audiences by shifting to centrist language is vital in our polarizing times. But it’s not the only critical action brands have to take. They must also ensure that they have “permission to play.” We’ve all seen the negative examples of brands that have aligned with a cause and paid the price for making an unwelcome entrance. But brands that carefully earn their stripes, can thrive with a seemingly polarizing issue.

The film “Barbie” delves into themes of patriarchy and its impact on women’s empowerment. The Barbie brand earned the right to play in the gender rights space over several years, during which it redefined its purpose as “to inspire the limitless potential of girls everywhere” and bravely redesigned its core product to be more inclusive and to challenge the gender stereotypes it helped to create. The Barbie movie received an overwhelmingly positive cultural response, with attempts at negative feedback failing to gain traction.

Defend Your Claims

Brands engaging with issues must be prepared to respond to investigative challenges to their authenticity on issues. Brewery and pub chain BrewDog faced significant backlash for its campaign denouncing the corrupt World Cup, which inadvertently shone a spotlight on its own internal issues. An open letter from former BrewDog employees called out the company for not living up to its values and for fostering a culture of fear where employees felt intimidated. In the face of the public outcry, BrewDog acknowledged the disconnect between its purpose and the reality of its work culture.

Prepare for Worst-Case Scenarios

Finally, if you’re aligning yourself with a high-profile issue, be prepared for the worst. Brands that take calculated risks and plan for backlash are more likely to survive attacks unscathed. Don’t run or stay silent. Stand your ground and practice de-escalation techniques to diffuse the tension.

For instance, when M&Ms received backlash against its new gender-neutral character and character costume changes, the brand used humor to diffuse the tension. M&Ms trolled the haters by faking the decision to cancel its own characters, only to bring them back during the biggest media moment of the year, the Super Bowl. Sometimes it’s better to fight fire with funny than to fight fire with fire. It also can't hurt to bring your crisis response team proactively at the planning stage so you’re prepared for the bear to wake up.

Now is the right moment for brands to consider the steps they can take to ensure they continue to do purpose properly in a polarizing world. Ask yourself what type of brand you have. If you're a mainstream brand with a middle market audience, you need to be thinking of ways to unite people, to bring them together with a common cause and create momentum for change. It's about being inclusive in the true sense of the language—that means including as many people as possible and putting this ahead of political ideologies, academic linguistics and specialized jargon.

Remember, progressive is called progressive for a reason: It’s a perspective that tends to be out in front of mainstream opinion. Most people, including the ones that buy your brand, are probably a little behind the curve.

Alex Lewis is cofounder of Revolt.