When Brands Speak
Updated: Apr 30
Written by Riya Wadhwani, Ph.D. Student at Indian Institute of Management Udaipur, India
A conversation with Prof. Sourjo Mukherjee unpacks the moral dilemmas, uncertainties, and risks brands need to consider for standing towards socio-political issues.
Sourjo Mukherjee (Assistant Professor of Marketing, BITS Pilani, Dubai Campus, UAE) and Niek Althuizen (Associate Professor in Marketing at Montpellier Business School, Montpellier, France) reveal the moral consequences of brands that take a stand on controversial socio-political issues in their recent and highly impactful IJRM paper (over 150+ citations on Google Scholar), “Brand activism: Does courting controversy help or hurt a brand?” (Volume 37, Issue 4, December 2020).
On “Negative” Effects of Brand Activism
Starbucks made it to the headlines when it expressed its opinion against the Trump government’s policy to ban refugee entry to the US in 2017. Brand activism concerns such acts of taking a stand on divisive socio-political issues.
"There is a pressure of expectation on brands to stand and speak for socio-political issues. We find that if the brand believes in the "right" thing per the popular consumer opinion, it does not gain commercially. However, if the brand expresses what consumers think is wrong, it may incur heavy commercial losses. This is a very tricky situation to be in.”
- Sourjo Mukherjee
When consumers disagree with the brand's stand, the brand's stand will negatively impact the brand's attitude, intention, and behavior. In contrast, there is no significant effect on brand attitude among consumers who support the brand’s stand. So, activism can hurt the brand substantially, while the potential benefits are minimal.
Yes, the Negative Effects of Activism can be Mitigated!
In the case of consumer-brand disagreement, there are three ways a consumer can react to Starbucks’ stand against the refugee entry ban- punish and protest, reinterpret and rationalize the brand’s actions as “moral,” and decouple the brand with its socio-political stand. So, the good news, not every consumer-brand disagreement leads to harsh consequences.
For instance, a Monday morning breaking news reads, “Mr. Knudstorp (Starbucks’ executive chairman) raises his voice against government’s new law on refugee entry ban.”
In this case, Mr. Knudstorp's private opinions are less likely to impact a consumer's association with the brand. In other words, if the relationship between the brand and the source of the stand (Mr. Knudstorp) is perceived to be more distant, it will enable consumers to apply a moral decoupling strategy.
In this manner, the source of the stand moderates and helps reduce the negative effect of consumer-brand disagreement on brand attitude.
Effects of Apology on Brand’s Stand
When consumers align with the brand's stance, they come forward to defend the brand. Unexpectedly, if the brand surrenders under the pressure of public backlash, the same consumers feel betrayed (betrayal of in-group), negatively affecting their attitudes towards the brand.
Therefore, Starbucks should not shy away from raising its voice, as the consumers who align with similar ideologies will come to its defense. However, it is also essential to be strategic about apology and withdrawal from the stance. One important consideration: The results of all the experimental studies reflect the short-term effects of brand activism on attitude. There is a need for further research to find out the nuances of such brand activism that affect consumer attitudes in the long run.
Sourjo’s Sources of Inspiration
"I remember I saw the book "On the Genealogy of Morality" when I was in high school in my grandfather's bookshelf. I remembered the book because it was very interesting in terms of the title."
The seed of Sourjo’s interest in morality and inspiration from the works of moral psychology was sourced from his grandfather’s library (a treasure of knowledge and wisdom for a Bengali family). Further, to explain this phenomenon theoretically, the works of Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and others exploring the nuances of moral psychology acted as a direction to this inspiration.
The 2016 US presidential elections and associated attention to linkages between business and politics helped him position these socio-political events within the domain of morality. As a first-year Ph.D. student, Sourjo was curious to understand the consequences of such attention to brands’ political stand on the ideologies of their consumers. Moreover, how this translates to moral apprehension towards the brands further contributed to his curiosity.
A journey from ideation to IJRM publication
As a first-year Ph.D. student, the decision to hold on to the phenomenon of brand activism was very risky from the academic career point of view since the literature backing brand activism was scarce. However, through continuous support and encouragement from his co-author, Niek, Sourjo could ultimately translate the idea into a paper. Niek was Associate Professor at ESSEC Business School (now at Montpellier Business School, France) when Sourjo was pursuing his Ph.D. from ESSEC. Conferences and initial attempts at publishing were fraught with challenges due to the new variable "brand activism" and its argued similarities with Consumer Social Responsibility. However, through constructive feedback and support from the AE and reviewers at IJRM on this paper, it sailed through and finally got published.
“I am really thankful to Niek for trusting in me, this project, and idea.”
- Sourjo Mukherjee
Meet Prof. Sourjo Mukherjee
A ritual/practice/exercise that you can’t miss or start your day without?
Morning coffee- espresso
If you would not be a marketing researcher, what would you be?
I Loved my job before I decided to switch to academics, so I would love to be a Product Manager again.
If you could retain only one concept in marketing, what would it be?
Not specifically marketing, but moral foundations theory.
Who is the researcher, from any field you would like to sit to lunch with, what would you say to him/her?
I would like to meet Jonathan Haidt (Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University Stern School of Business) and discuss about moral psychology and fascinating findings associated with morality and moral decisions.
What is the number one question you hope to answer during your career (something that drives you)?
Understanding and exploring the extent to which morality affects consumer behavior/decision-making.
Read the paper
Interested in reading all the details about the pros and cons of brand activism? Read the full paper here.
Want to cite the paper?
Mukherjee, Sourjo, and Niek Althuizen (2020), "Brand activism: Does courting controversy help or hurt a brand?" International Journal of Research in Marketing, 37(4), 772-788.
This article was written by
Ph.D. candidate at the Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur (Rajasthan, India)