Two years ago, we would be hard pressed to see companies take public stances on political issues. Sure, there were edge cases like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, yet for most Main Street brands, politics was seen as a risky third rail. But that changed on May 25, 2020. The murder of George Floyd was a tragic tipping point that caused brands, en masse, to reflect on their role and responsibility within greater society. Since then, it’s become more commonplace to see companies use their influence to stand up for social issues, even those immersed in politics—topics like gun control, trans rights, voting rights, climate change, and vaccine mandates.
But while dozens of big brands took swift and public action following the Capitol insurrection and the passing of Georgia’s controversial SB 202 election integrity act, most have been silent, so far, on Texas’s SB 8 abortion law.
Brands want to avoid being ‘cancelled’
Last month, my employer Forrester surveyed 150 U.S. B2C marketing executives, and 67% of them acknowledged that risk of consumer boycotts affects the degree to which their brand takes stands on political issues. When it comes to abortion specifically, we found low consensus among U.S. adult consumers (back in March) on a brand’s obligation to lead the change on abortion rights. Relative to other political issues, abortion rights ranked third-to-last (see chart below). In fact, 43% of U.S. adults indicated that a brand should stay out of the abortion debate completely.
In September, we polled around 300 general population U.S. adults in Forrester’s ConsumerVoices Market Research Online Community. More than any other political issue, a brand’s stance on abortion laws showed the highest boycott potential: 107 out of 318 people indicted they would very likely stop using a brand if that brand took a public stance on abortion that was opposite of what they believed. Compare this to just 54 people who indicated the same regarding climate change.
Brands won’t be silent for long
Since our data shows that companies taking a stance on abortion is far from being a consensus issue, it’s not surprising that most brands have maintained a holding pattern regarding the Texas abortion ban. They are betting that the downside risk of taking an action will outweigh that of inaction. But their silence is likely temporary.
While some companies may view what’s happening in Texas as a local issue, that won’t be the case for long. As more states consider reviewing or amending their laws to mirror Texas’s legislation and the Supreme Court hears a separate Mississippi case on December 1, the pressure for brands to weigh in will only intensify—especially from values-driven Gen Z, who believe not saying anything is saying something. While Forrester’s March 2021 survey data shows low consensus among all U.S. adults when it comes to brands weighing in on abortion rights, 40% of adult Gen Zers in the U.S. indicated that brands should “lead the change” on this issue.
Brands must explain their actions
As brands consider breaking their silence, as Apple just did, they can learn at least one lesson from the handful of companies who were first to take public stances on Texas’s abortion law: Be unequivocal as to the reason for your action. This means that brands should:
- Act authentically on corporate values. For a company like Texas-based Bumble, a woman’s right to choose is at the very heart of its values. The company tweeted on September 1, “Bumble is women-founded and women-led, and from day one we’ve stood up for the most vulnerable. We’ll keep fighting against regressive laws like #SB8.” It, as well as its competitor Match Group, set up a relief fund to support women seeking abortions in Texas.
- Enforce terms of service. Addressing this issue doesn’t require every brand to become an activist brand. There is a scale of many levers a brand can push and pull to safeguard consumers. For instance, GoDaddy enforced its terms of service by shutting down a whistleblower website soliciting anonymous tips to expose women in Texas seeking abortions.
- Consider employees. Brands should consider more than consumers and investors—and place special emphasis on employees. In a June 2021 Forrester survey, 34% of U.S. adults indicated they would boycott a brand if that brand reportedly treats its employees unfairly. Lyft announced that it will cover 100% of the legal fees incurred by its drivers if they get sued for transporting women to get abortions, citing that, “drivers are never responsible for monitoring where their riders go or why.” Uber joined in Lyft’s efforts with a similar commitment.
When it comes to the range of political issues within the sphere of a brand’s impact, abortion is one of the more complicated and nuanced ones. Any action, including inaction, will cause consumer reaction. To determine the degree to which they should exert their cultural influence and ensure an authentic stance, companies must determine their stake in this issue, how it intersects with their corporate values, and what’s right for their community of employees and customers. Those that get it right will put people first regardless of politics.
Mike Proulx is the VP Research Director of the CMO Practice at Forrester.