Digital & Social Media

Not Everyone Is Happy When Companies Take a Stand

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Did you think more highly of the National Football League, Apple and other major brands for pressuring Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto legislation that sanctioned discrimination against gay and lesbian consumers? It may depend on how old you are.

TRUE surveyed 2,000 people on whether their opinions about companies that spoke out on human rights issues improved or worsened and found that younger respondents were far more likely to approve corporate activism on behalf of social issues and patronize those businesses because of it than those over 34.

1 Comparison of Opinions

35 AND OLDER

  • 26.3 percent said their opinion went down; 23.2 percent said it improved
  • 26 percent said they were less likely to give that company business; 16.3 percent said they were more likely
  • Most disapproving segment: 45 to 54 year olds. 31 percent said their opinion would fall

UNDER 35

  • 36.3 percent said their opinion improved; 24.6 percent said their opinion was worse
  • Their shopping behavior was only marginally different, with a little less than a quarter saying they were more likely to give the company business and the same saying they were less likely
  • Most supportive segment: 25 to 34 year old. 43 percent said their opinion rose

2 Change in Shopping Behavior Related to Brand

3 Change in Perception of Brand

So what’s the message to companies about corporate activism on human rights issues? By definition, any highly charged issue has passionate people on both sides, and the survey’s numbers suggest that age may play a factor as to which side consumers fall. Ultimately, companies shouldn’t engage in taking sides if their sole motivation is increased sales or higher approval ratings. But enterprises have other stakeholders to take into account, including employees, and other reasons for speaking out that have to do with the intrinsic identity of brands.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1062, which allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers if homosexuality violated the owners’ religious beliefs, aroused strong corporate opposition from the likes of Major League Baseball, Apple, AT&T, Delta Air Lines, Mariott, American Airlines, Intel, Southwest Airlines, Verizon, PetSmart, eBay and GoDaddy. Many believe the deciding factor for Brewer, who vetoed the bill only days before the deadline, was the suggestion from within the NFL that enactment of the law would prompt the organization to move the 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona. It wasn’t considered an idle threat: The University of Phoenix Stadium, the same one slated to host next year’s championship, lost the 1993 game after state residents voted not to recognize Martin Luther King Day as an official state holiday.

While much of the corporate opposition over SB 1062 was based on the legislation’s potential to adversely affect the state’s economy, tourism and business development, most organizations also brought up the fact that it violated their own internal value of non-discrimination.

“Regardless of whether or not SB 1062 goes into effect, our internal policies have and will continue to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation,” Marriott said in a letter to Brewer. “At a fundamental level, we need state law to also reflect these values of inclusion.”

The debate is far from over, although thus far the Arizona bill has attracted the most corporate opposition: the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a version of the Arizona legislation, is making its way through the state legislature, with some efforts to water it down. Missouri had a bill introduced two days before Brewer vetoed SB 1062, and Oregon is considering a ballot initiative.

But the Arizona outcry by companies is a good example of businesses looking beyond the potential negatives of speaking out among the public and recognizing the detrimental effect not standing up for human rights and against discrimination might have on their employees, the nation and its economy, and the essential values their brands embrace.

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About the author

Colby Vogt is a research specialist, providing expertise in primary and secondary research and management consulting. His background includes developing digital media methodologies to measure PR initiatives, working with clients in such sectors as consumer goods, finance, automotive and manufacturing. Among his previous roles, Vogt managed several Fortune 500 accounts for the Gallup Organization.

Pat Wechsler is the editor of TRUE. She spent 30 years as a journalist at Business Week, Bloomberg, New York Newsday/Newsday and New York magazine before coming to FleishmanHillard to start TRUE.