People are increasingly turning to what they buy and consume to make a stance on socio-political issues that matter to them writes, Dr Max YuSchool of Business

Max Yu
Irish people are not afraid to express themselves politically through protests. Students protested a few years ago to get the Government to do more to tackle climate change. Truck drivers protested over the rising cost of fuel last year. Recently, there were protests and counter-protests held across the nation over immigration and refugee rights.

While protesting is loud and visible, there are other subtle but effective ways to express one's political belief. People are increasingly turning to consumption to make a stance on socio-political issues that matter to them. Will you choose coffee beans that are ethically sourced over those that are not? This kind of everyday simple consumption decisions may not appear on the front page of newspapers, but they are shaping the marketplace and in turn politics. Knowingly or not, everyone is engaging in activism through their consumptions.

Brands and businesses are aware of this trend and are strategising to appeal to consumers. It's common to see brands sharing statements on their social media pages about their views on socio-political issues. Such "talk only" moves sometimes receive backlash from consumers, as these statements are seen as unauthentic public relations stunts.

Conversely, brands are also getting better in appearing authentic by doing more than just issuing statements. Guinness, for example, launched a major agricultural initiative to cut their carbon footprint last year, appealing to consumers’ "green" taste. Similarly, Ikea Ireland affirmed theircommitment for LGBT+ inclusion by donating 100% of the profits from their STORSTOMMA rainbow bags to LGBT+ charities and initiatives across Ireland and the UK.

From brands’ perceptive, fighting climate change and supporting LGBT+ rights are both right and easy choices in Ireland. According to a survey earlier this year, 85% of people in Ireland think global warming is a threat to mankind. The National LGBT Federation reported recently that the acceptance of LGBT+ identities are high, with 90% agreeing that the government should ensure that incitement to hatred and hate crimes against LGBT+ people should be adequately addressed in outlaws. Thus, brands in Ireland

But there will be times when brands have to choose between what is right and what is easy. There are and will be socio-political issues that divide people in Ireland. We need to look no further than the recent protests and counter-protests for immigration rights for an example. Will brands make a stance on such politically divided issues? The decision is definitely not as easy as choosing to fight climate change or not.

Developments in the US show us what may happen in the Irish marketplace in the future. Political polarisation there is very much on the rise with opinions shifting away from the centre. As society becomes more politically divided, individuals' political beliefs become the front and centre of their identities. Consuming brands that align with a certain political leaning reinforces that identity and also signals that identity to others.

Brands in the US are positioning themselves on the political spectrum. Nike ran a marketing campaign with ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick, the face of the kneeling during national anthem movement, to make their political stance clear. The campaign led to a boycott from conservative consumers, but also support from liberal consumers. The tagline of Nike’s marketing campaign captures this commercial risk very well: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." One can make a good guess that a wearer of Nike is more likely to be liberal than conservative.

Unsurprisingly given the potential risk, 83% of US chief marketing officers believe it is inappropriate for their firms to take a stance on politically charged issues. On the other hand, 66% of US consumers think it's important for brands to take public stances on socio-political issues. These surveys together suggest brands may have incorrectly assumed remaining neutral in controversial socio-political issues is better than taking a stance.

My research team and I explored this phenomenon and found that brands with a neutral stance are favoured by conservatives more than by liberals. Our findings further indicate that the answer is more complex than whether a neutral stance simply benefits or hurts brands.

Some may argue that Ireland is less politically polarised than the US, so brands do not have to risk taking a controversial stance in socio-political issues. While Ireland currently has a different political climate to the US, there is no denying that this invisible political battlefield in marketplaces is becoming more visible globally. During the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019, mobile apps were created to mark shops and restaurants based on their political stance, and consumers buycott and boycott businesses accordingly. Currently, some Irish pubs are making a stance by not selling alcohol associated with Russia.

If there is one thing we've learned from recent protests, it is that Irish people understand neutrality is complicit. Brands in Ireland need to brace themselves for political warfare - ready or not.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm.