Five lessons for brands in the age of purpose polarisation

Revolt co-founder Peter Bardell guides brands in navigating polarising issues by transforming language and earning 'permission to play' while staying true to their purpose

By Peter Bardell

Nearly 50 per cent of all large companies say they have experienced ESG backlash and expect this to continue or even intensify. In the face of this, we are in danger of some corporates going into purpose-related hibernation, rather than risk the perceived reputational damage of speaking out.

But with consumers and employees shifting expectations and with so many critical issues now requiring brand and business support, hibernation is not an option. From Revolt’s Poking the Bear research, we have identified key insights and actions that brands can embrace in order to unite people behind their purposeful missions and to avoid backlash.

Progressive purpose is dividing consumers

In the US, ‘progressive’ language is driving a dividing wedge between Democrats and Republicans by up to 32 per cent, according to Revolt’s research. Sexuality & gender identity rights is the most politically polarising issue in the US today, with just 27 per cent of right-leaning voters ranking this issue as important versus 64 per cent of left-leaning voters. Climate change was the second most polarising issue, with 45 per cent of right-leaning respondents saying it was important, compared with 81 per cent of left-leaning respondents.

But you can transform polarising issues

Revolt’s research revealed how more ‘grizzly’ issues can be ‘tamed’ by careful, pragmatic shifts in language to align with universal values. For example, with the more progressive frame of “Fighting for climate justice for all” climate change sits way down in 17th place in the ranking of issues important to respondents. But when phrased in the centrist language “Securing a safe climate for your family’s future”, it jumps to the fifth most important issue.

Ensure you have ‘permission to play’

If you’re going into ‘bear territory’ you must also ensure that your brand has permission to play. There are numerous examples of brands that have poked the bear and paid the price for making an unwelcome entrance. But brands that carefully earn their stripes, can thrive even with a seemingly polarising issue.

Be prepared for investigative challenges

If you’re tackling a more grizzly issue, you can be called to account by groups and individuals delving into your commitments and actions. Brands that take calculated risks and plan for backlash are more likely to survive attacks unscathed. Don’t run or stay silent. Stand your ground and practice de-escalation techniques to diffuse the tension.

Work collaboratively to make purpose work

For brands that believe that purpose pays back, it's vital to create the conditions for each other to be successful. We heard this point echoed throughout our conversations with the 20+ purpose, ESG and sustainability communicators. They highlighted the need for working together as an industry to share best practice, have open and honest dialogue about the challenges being faced and for cooperation between all brands in the purpose space so everyone can continue to be a force for good.

For brands with a purpose mission, winning the war of ideas is critical in progressing action. From Revolt’s research, we can see that moderate language means majority support. While progressive language may seem like a stronger articulation of the cause, it isn’t supporting purposeful action as even left-leaning voters view issues as more important when framed with more moderate language. Brands have a fantastic opportunity to use these insights to unite people behind their purposeful missions and continue to do purpose properly in a polarising world.

You can find the full report here.


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