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Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

by | Oct 16, 2023 | Public Relations

As part of the overall Purpose mandate that brands and businesses were asked to adopt a few years ago, it was expected of them to become outspoken on societal issues, and even take sides on hot-button issues, as we are all aware. For companies, the reluctance became about which side (if any) to take in order to build trust and solidarity with their audiences—which logically makes that choice disingenuous. The safer route has always been to stay neutral. And new follow-up research from Bentley University and Gallup finds that American consumers are significantly more positive about the impact businesses have on their personal lives and society more generally than they were a year ago—and are more supportive of their neutrality.

The newly released Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report follows the firms’ landmark report in 2022, quantifies Americans’ attitudes about the impact of business, revealing that just a year later, those consumers are more positive about the impact of business overall, with 63 percent saying businesses have an extremely or somewhat positive impact on people’s lives, up considerably from 55 percent in 2022. 

Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

The results of the survey of over 5,000 Americans identifies changes in their attitudes toward businesses from 2022 to 2023, and addresses new, important issues companies are contending with, including just how much people trust them to use AI in a responsible way, what they think of the pay gap between CEOs and average workers, and when people think businesses should take public stances on societal issues.

The research shows how Americans see business as a driver for change

Nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) U.S. adults say businesses have a “great deal” or “some” power to positively impact people’s lives. This number remains unchanged from 2022, highighting consumers’ opinion that business plays a key role in positively shaping the future. But though the power is there, companies aren’t doing enough.

Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

“The Bentley-Gallup survey results shine a light on how Americans’ view of the role of business in our society is changing,” said E. LaBrent Chrite, Bentley University President, in a news release. “These findings should interest every business leader who cares about connecting with their customers and recruiting and retaining talented workers. Because the companies that learn about and respond to what Americans expect and want will be the ones that survive and have the most enduring impact in our society.”

Consumers are cooling off on businesses weighing in on hot social topics

Businesses have become increasingly vocal on key issues facing the country and the world at large, from abortion to climate change, as consumers have been demanding. But today, Americans are less favorable about businesses weighing in on public debates than they were a year ago. The study finds significantly less than half (41 percent) of Americans say businesses should be taking public stances on current events, a significant decline of 7 percentage points from 2022. Consumers are now most supportive of businesses speaking out on climate change (55 percent) and mental health (52 percent), and least supportive of businesses taking stances on religion (15 percent), political candidates (19 percent) and abortion (26 percent).

Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

But this is not the case for everyone: young Americans (18-29) are much more likely to want businesses to take a public stance on current events (53 percent) than those aged 45 and over (35 percent)—demonstrating significant tension between younger consumers and the older executives who run many U.S. businesses.

Skeptical consumers are wary of artificial intelligence use in business—and don’t trust companies to use it responsibly

As brands and businesses of all stripes rush to deploy AI worldwide, the matter of trust remains an elusive problem. Nearly 8 in 10 (79 percent) consumers are trusting businesses “not much” or “not at all” to adopt AI responsibly. And these trust levels are consistently low among all subgroups of the U.S. adult population, including gender, race, age, education level and political party affiliation.

Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

Pay disparity with executives is a top priority

After months of high-profile contract negotiations between businesses and unions including in Hollywood and the auto industry, the survey finds 82 percent of Americans believe avoiding a major pay gap between CEOs and their average employees is “somewhat” or “extremely important.” Yet only 13 percent say businesses are doing an “excellent” or “good” job at that. Compounding this sentiment, the researchers find 80 percent believe it is extremely important that businesses make money in ethical ways and compensate all workers fairly—but again, fewer than one-third see businesses doing this effectively.

Purpose reversal: Consumers increasingly say brands that stay neutral have a beneficial impact on society and people’s lives

Four-day workweeks appeal to the masses

Just 52 percent of respondents believe businesses have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing, however—and more than three-quarters (77 percent) say a four-day, 40-hour workweek would improve their wellbeing if their employer offered it. Americans are also favorable about setting boundaries between work and home life, with 66 percent saying that limiting email contact outside of work hours would have a “somewhat positive” or “extremely positive” effect on their wellbeing. When considering taking a new job, 87 percent of Americans say it is “extremely” or “somewhat” important that a company offers flexible work arrangements, and 68 percent find it important that the company provides free mental health support services.

Download the full report here.

The study is based on a Gallup Panel web survey completed by 5,458 adults in the U.S., aged 18 and older, conducted May 8-15, 2023. The Gallup Panel is a probability-based longitudinal panel of U.S. adults whom Gallup selects using random-digit-dial phone interviews that cover landline and cellphones. Gallup also uses address-based sampling methods to recruit Panel members.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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