Why reputation matters in brand activism 

Researchers test how the success of controversial and non-controversial activism is influenced by the reputation of the brand delivering it.

Photo by Josh Redd on Unsplash

Purpose advertising and the credibility gap: How consumers respond to established versus emergent brand activist messaging 

By Tyler Milfeld and Eric Haley. First published in the Journal of Advertising Research*.

Give it to me in one sentence.

Brands must establish a reputation for fighting the good fight before most people will buy their brand activism.

Give me a little more detail.

The researchers set out to learn three things. First, whether putting out ads with activist messages influences people’s perceptions of a brand’s credibility. Second, whether brands with a reputation for activism are viewed as more credible when they tackle divisive issues in their marketing. And third, whether credibility influences purchase intent.

In one study, the researchers split participants into four groups and showed each of them a different ad — either an ad about policing by Nike or by Asics, or an ad about inspiring athletes by the same brands. Participants were then shown a list of brands and were asked to rate each brand’s credibility as an activist, their attitudes towards each brand and their purchase intent for each brand.

Study two followed the same procedure, except this time participants were only shown contentious ads from ice cream brands. The ads focused on immigration and were delivered either by Ben & Jerry’s, (established activists), or Breyers, (non-established activists). The researchers also tested the level of knowledge each respondent had around the issue of immigration.

In the final study, the researchers replicated study one but added the question about issue knowledge.

The results of the studies showed that in general people rated brands’ credibility higher after looking at an ad that did not address a contentious issue. However, the established activist brands were more likely to be seen as credible when they used their advertising to take a stand compared with brands that had no such reputation. Having controlled for any pre-existing brand favourability and purchase intent, the increased credibility for Nike and Ben & Jerry’s consistently led to better brand perceptions and higher purchase intent.

Both studies two and three showed that the non-established activist brand encountered a disproportionate amount of negative responses towards its contentious messaging when shown to individuals with developed knowledge of the issue. Knowledgeable individuals drove the credibility gap between established and non-established activism brands. Researchers theorised this may be due to these individuals recognising the brands’ lack of history engaging with the topic, which created an ‘expectancy violation’.

Why is this interesting?

It shows there is no universally ‘perfect’ stance for brands to take over contentious issues. Marketers can’t expect a message to have the same impact irrespective of which brand delivers it.

For the best results, a brand’s reputation should determine which social issues marketers choose to address. Even then, those with an established reputation for activism are not immune to negative returns on contentious issues. As a general rule, if brands are only looking for short-term returns when running social purpose advertising they are better off staying clear of contentious issues.

Any weaknesses?

The researchers only looked at four brands within two categories, which is not a lot. And while the results were consistent for both brand categories, there was still room for the influence of other characteristics to creep in. For example, both Nike and Ben & Jerry’s are market leaders, as well as seasoned activist brands.

Additionally, viewing conditions for the ads were unrealistic. Ads are rarely seen in isolation and our evaluation of a brand is rarely triggered immediately after we see an ad. In reality, memory of the ads and their impact on brand perceptions will dwindle over time. Because there was no sufficient delay following exposure to the ads before testing, it’s difficult to tell whether the impacts on brands would hold in the long-term.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, and it’s free.

*The Journal of Advertising Research is published by WARC, a sister publication to Contagious.

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