Brands tiptoe through today’s political minefields.

In 2017, not only is the United States politically divided into nearly equal camps, but it seems as though the gulf between the two sides is wider than it’s been in decades.

In my own personal experience, I haven’t witnessed political rifts this big since the anti-war era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But even then, that divide wasn’t so much on partisan grounds as on philosophical ones.

[And it wasn’t an equal divide, either.  Remember President Richard Nixon’s slogan about the “silent majority”?  It was — to the tune of a 61% Nixon victory in the presidential election of 1972.]

Historically, the people who manage product brands have adhered to a formula similar to that of distant relatives getting together for a holiday meal: avoid talking about politics and religion.  But in times where politics can overtake even the best-curated brands, that’s become more difficult.

Recently, international market research firm Ipsos studied the issue. It tested a number of well-known brands that have been the subject of “political” controversies.  Considering one measure – stock price – Ipsos found that there has been minimal impact on brand health when looking at the publicly traded brands that President Donald Trump has mentioned in his various late-night tweets.

But viewed another way, Ipsos found that there’s an ever-expanding emphasis on partisan politics. Americans have become more likely to combine their behavior as consumers with their ideological or partisan loyalties.  One measure is the spike in searches on Google for the term “boycott,” as can be seen clearly in this chart:

According to Ipsos, politically-minded boycotts appear to be having noticeable business impacts. Looking at around 30 publicly traded brands, those with the highest rate of consumer boycotts since the November 2016 election are the ones that experienced the worst stock market performance – by a factor of about -15%.

Prudent advice would be for brands to respond to the hyper-partisan environment by trying not to be drawn into ideological debates. That’s a smart move, as most of the brands Ipsos tested have a fairly evenly balanced mix of self-described Democrats and Republicans.

In such an environment, no matter which way a company might be perceived to be moving “politically,” there will be a substantial portion of its customers who object.

And object they do: As part of its study, Ipsos surveyed consumers on their boycotting behaviors.  More than 25% of the survey respondents revealed that they have stopped using products or services from a company because of its perceived political leanings.  And as Ipsos has found, the brands with the highest rate of recent consumer boycott activity have also experienced the worst stock market performance.

Trying to avoid becoming part of today’s sometimes-toxic political environment isn’t always easy for brands to accomplish. Even for brands that make a concerted effort, it is increasingly hard to predict what factors might drive a company into the limelight — or whether anything the company does or doesn’t do can control what actually happens.

Ipsos cautions that staying on the political sidelines isn’t as easy as it has been in the past. It has determined that political party identification now ranks as one of the most central aspects of how consumers organize their lives – and how they relate to brands as well.

To illustrate, Ipsos presents the cases of Nordstrom and Uber. Both companies feature customer bases that skew somewhat more Democrat, but with significant percentages of Republicans as well.  Since the 2016 Presidential election, both companies have experienced politically-themed PR incidents that were magnified on social media platforms, to negative effect.

Different groups reacted in different ways – Republicans turned off by Nordstrom (dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line) and Democrats turned off by Uber (Travis Kalanick’s involvement with Donald Trump’s economic advisory council).

But the end result was the same:  the brands’ reputations suffered.

In today’s environment, it seems as though assiduously maintaining a non-partisan, non-confrontational stance is still the best policy for maintaining brand strength.  But it isn’t a guarantee anymore.

Additional findings and conclusion from the Ipsos evaluation can be found here.

Mobile shopping goes majorly mainstream.

untitledFor years, the common perception has been that consumers tend to use their laptops, tablets or mobile devices to research purchases while ultimately visiting a store to make the actual purchase.

And up until now, most studies have shown that no matter what type of digital device consumers use to shop, large majorities prefer to complete the sale in a store or at the mall.

But now a new study is telling us something different. The research, conducted by questioning ~1,000 U.S. consumers by research firm Ipsos, shows that shopping frequency in physical stores hasn’t kept pace with the growth of smartphone shopping.

According to Ipsos, over the past year there has been a significant increase in the amount of smartphone shopping, with two-thirds of respondents reporting that they are doing more of this today:

  • Shopping more frequently via smartphone: ~64%
  • Shopping more frequently via tablet: ~60%
  • Shopping more frequently via desktop computer: ~57%
  • Shopping more frequently via laptop computer: ~57%

At first blush, these figures don’t seem startling at all, considering the rise in the consumer economy over the past year or so.  Moreover, ~41% of the survey’s respondents reported that they haven’t made a significant change in their frequency of shopping in physical stores.

But in considering the ways respondents reported how and where they’ve been shopping less frequently over the past year, the differences appear much more stark:

  • Shopping less frequently via physical store: ~30%
  • Less frequently via desktop computer: ~11%
  • Less frequently via laptop computer: ~11%
  • Less frequently via tablet: ~11%
  • Less frequently via smartphone: ~9%

It even goes further than that. The two groups which seemed most inclined to shop less frequently in physical stores were younger consumers (age 25 and under) as well as consumers who earn more than $100,000 per year.

Add to this the propensity for younger consumers to be using smartphones and tablets more often than their older counterparts, and it’s clear that some of the most prized demographic categories are migrating to smartphone shopping in a big way.

The implications for traditional retail could not be more clear:  adapt your business model or else.

What are America’s “Most Influential” Brands?

Most influential brandsIn my most recent blog post, I reported on equity analysis firm 24/7 Wall Street and its take on the “most damaged” brands in the United States.

While there was pretty universal agreement among readers on most of the nine brands that had the dubious honor to make it on the list, there were several cases where some readers disagreed — Apple and J.P. Morgan Chase in particular.

Now, as an interesting comparative exercise looking at the other end of the scale, New York-based research company Ipsos MarketQuest polled Americans earlier this year on which brands they view as the “most influential” ones.

Of the 100 major brands included in the Ipsos survey and rated by respondents, here are the ten brands cited as most influential in the 2013 survey (in descending order of score):

  1. Google
  2. Amazon
  3. Apple
  4. Microsoft
  5. Facebook
  6. VISA
  7. Wal-Mart
  8. Yahoo!
  9. Proctor & Gamble
  10. eBay

Google leads the pack – and it’s hardly a surprise. But an important (and perhaps surprising) thing we notice is how pervasive technology, media and web-based brands are on the list.

Clearly, these are the types of companies that are increasingly influential in the lives of everyday Americans.

In fact, just three brands in the “Top 10 Most Influential” predate the personal computer era: VISA, Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble. And they rank relatively low on the list at #6, #7 and #9.

Moreover, let’s not forget that all three of these more “legacy-type” brands have actually been quite active in online and social media activities. Clearly, their senior management personnel realize that a good measure of future brand health lies in the same space where the other leading brands are active.

Apple: Brand Damage?Another interesting point that jumps out is when we compare the Ipsos “most influential” with the 24/7 Wall Street “most damaged” rankings. One brand stands out on both lists: Apple.

How can this be?

But on second thought, is it reall all so surprising? The 24/7 Wall Street inclusion was based on stock analysts’ reading of the company’s recent missteps and related share price declines … whereas the Ipsos list is based on the findings from a survey of “ordinary Americans.”

Applying the same comparative measures, I’m pretty sure the public’s view of General Motors stayed right up there long after the financial analysts had fled the stock and  relegated GM’s brand reputation to the basement.

But in the end, public opinion eventually followed the analysts, in part because GM’s efforts to turn around company performance proved spectacularly ineffective. It just took more time for that knowledge to seep into the collective consciousness.

For Apple, the big question is: Will its future actions mean that it stabilizes its brand reputation? Or, will its effort fall short, leading to a loss of consumer confidence?

Let’s check in again after 18-24 months and find out.

America’s “Summer of Funk”

Consumers are in a funk in the Summer of 2012.

How much do American consumers spend in an average day? According to a July 2012 Gallup Poll, they spend about $70 per day in stores, gas stations, restaurants and online. (Housing, utility costs and vehicle purchases are extra.)

It turns out that this figure is a pretty big drop from the average daily spend of $104 Gallup found in 2008.

That meme we’re hearing on the campaign trail about people’s livelihoods having shrunk over the past three or four years? Evidently, it’s a fact.

And Gallup is also finding that upper-income Americans have undergone the same degree of spending reduction as everyone else. Their spending is now down to about $116 per day.

Evidently, confidence in the U.S. economy and the stock market’s uneven performance have taken their toll on the psyche of even the affluent classes in America. And Gallup isn’t the only organization charting this. Ipsos MediaCT is finding a similar story in its surveys.

Last week, Stephen Kraus, an Ipsos senior vice president and author of several books on the upper-income sector of society, wrote: “Widespread uncertainty plays a role in a fundamental fact of today’s “affluent” marketplace. For the most part, affluents today simply don’t feel affluent.”

Krauss continues, “This feeling isn’t new; for most, it is part of the lingering hangover of The Great Recession. But it is particularly pronounced in the summer of uncertainty.

Krauss concludes his remarks with this rather gloomy observation: “It’s a summer of uncertainty indeed – about the economy, about the future, and even about one’s own standing in today’s financial hierarchy.”

Reading these very latest reports on the level of uncertainty – even resignation – that people have about the economy, it underscores the collective funk the American people seem to be in as the 2012 presidential campaign grinds on inexorably to its conclusion.

Perhaps once Election Day has come and gone, Americans will “snap out of it” and begin to feel brighter about the future.

Perhaps. But don’t hold your breath. 

Shopping in the Internet Age: Let’s Make a Deal

Consumers love their online dealsI hear the complaint often that e-mail has become the preserve of “deal a day” promotions and communications from brands that have devolved into little more than breathless announcements about discounts that are “too good to pass up,” coupled with the obligatory “free shipping” pot-sweetener.

And then the next day, another deal shows up that’s practically the same as the last one …

But how surprising is this, really? Let’s not forget that daily newspaper advertising – the equivalent antecedent to e-mail marketing, has always had a similar focus on price, sales and deals.

It’s just that with e-mail, it seems more ubiquitous because they’re being pitched to us hourly on any number of digital platforms and mobile devices, rather than just once a day with the newspaper delivery.

And there’s no doubt that the sheer volume of deal activity is growing – the low cost of e-mail marketing makes sure of that. Not only is seemingly every consumer brand out there working the e-mail channel like they did catalogues and newspaper advertising in the past, there’s also the bevy of coupon marketers like LivingSocial, Groupon, Yipit and Gilt City, to name just the top few.

Some have discerned a decline in the “quality” of the information that is being provided; whereas there may have once been some educational, informative or “cool” content included along with the special deals, now it’s often devolved into nothing but “price, price, price” and “savings, savings, savings.”

The extent of consumer interaction with “deal-a-day” websites and e-mail offerings was quantified recently in consumer research conducted by Yahoo and Ipsos OTX MediaCT. The survey, fielded in February 2011, discovered that U.S. adults who are on the Internet subscribe to an average of three daily or weekly shopping e-mails or e-newsletters. (And more than half subscribe to two or more.)

How often are people reading these e-communiqués? With daily regularly, it turns out.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents who subscribe to at least two of these “daily deal” e-mails or e-newsletters report that they read all of the messages that are sent. Here’s how reading frequency breaks out:

 Read several times per day: ~22% of respondents
 … Once per day: ~38%
 … A few times per week: ~23%

 Read once per week: ~7%
 … A few times per month: ~5%
 … Once per month or less: ~5%

The same Yahoo/Ipsos survey measured the degree of pass-along activity, which is one of the most potent aspects of e-mail marketing. Most recipients reported doing this – about 45% doing so on a weekly basis or more frequently:

 Forwarding deals to friends or family several times per week: ~17%
 … Several times per day: ~12%
 … Once per day: ~10%
 … Once per week: ~6%

 Forwarding once per month or less frequently: ~19%
 … Never doing so: ~22%

Despite the complaint commonly heard about groaning e-mail inboxes, the Yahoo/Ipsos survey gives little indication that consumers are in reality becoming all that tired of the onslaught of daily deal promos. In fact, over six in ten respondents in the survey reported that they subscribe to more of them today compared to last year.

Moreover, nearly half of the survey respondents reported that they’re excited to receive them … and that they “can’t wait” to see the latest deals being offered each time.

There’s another way we know that these deals are retaining their relevance: Three-fourths of the respondents reported that these types of e-mails come to their main inbox rather than to a separate account they’ve set up to receive such offers. So there’s little doubt that when people say that these deals are desirable, they actually mean it.

We consumers do like our deals, don’t we? And if you think that the popularity of deals and discounts is due to the recession, that’s belied by the fact that even America’s super-affluent are on the deal bandwagon. Unity Marketing’s recent survey of the wealthiest 2% of Americans — those earning $250,000+ per year — finds that value-priced Amazon is the top shopping destination for ~45% of them. Not only that, ~10% use Groupon for coupons and ~8% use Craigslist.

No, it seems bargain-hunting is the thing for practically everyone.