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Navigating in Uncertain and Politically-charged Times

by Jessica Reis

Americans started this year feeling incredibly divided. In our February poll , 74% of voters felt political division was getting worse in the country (with nearly half, 47%, believing so strongly), and 65% of voters said Americans are more politically divided than ever before. Even before today’s mass social distancing, leading companies were being challenged with how to engage in the political moment.

Yet while Americans may feel divided, our poll found deep wells of national unity and common values. This gives us some reassurance of the country’s resilience and ability to come together as we enter an unprecedented national crisis — one that will require shared sacrifice as we look out for the health and well-being of our neighbors. We will see implications of this over the next few months, especially as major brands adapt to the national mood during a crisis. Our poll reveals four key insights that apply to corporate strategy during this time:

First, most Americans assume large companies only care about their own profits — this was true in February and is potentially even sharper now. A 59%-majority of voters believe that “unless I hear otherwise, I assume big companies care only about their own profits,” over the 41% who believe “most big companies try to act responsibly and want to give something back to communities.” As large companies cut jobs and hours, Americans may become even more distrustful.

However there is an opportunity for brands to overcome this assumption. Our data suggests it is possible to convey a positive impact in a credible, meaningful way. Americans see distinction between different types of companies: 62% believe that “every company is different and some genuinely work to have a positive impact on communities.

We read this as good news: While Americans do not assume all companies care for the greater good, especially in times of crisis, they are uniquely aware that there are some good actors when it comes to community involvement. Brands cannot take this for granted and must work to show their commitment to communities– especially in challenging times.

Second, national political leadership is going to be tested over this crisis. And there will be political disagreements. Many Americans, especially those worried about their kids at home or their job at stake, will want to disengage from the political infighting and posturing they see.

This is a significant opportunity for consumer-facing brands and other trusted entities to engage with the public and be above partisan politics. With times so chaotic and uncertain, Americans want companies to engage in a way that creates space for them outside of the political back and forth — they want brands and the spaces they create to be a respite from political disagreement.

More people acknowledge that they prefer to buy from a company that says: “politics is important, but we want to focus on bringing people together, not driving them apart. Politics is important, but that happens outside of our walls. We want to be a place where customers can come together a get a break from the campaign,” over one that takes a more overt stance and says: “we take our role in society seriously, and we think it is often appropriate to take a stance on social and political issues that reflect our values.”

Which company would you prefer to buy from? One that says….

Third, when it does come to politics, many feel the country is divided. But in actuality there is more national agreement than those divisions suggest, especially around issues of national character. Americans largely believe in diversity: three-quarters believe that racism and sexism are still powerful forces in American life, and 79% believe that diversity strengthens our country. Americans are also compassionate: 78% believe that “America needs to have a humane border policy” and another 62% believe that “America needs to be a [safe]haven for refugees who flee violence or persecution.”

We have more in common and share more values than we think. This is very good news as we head into trying times; it also means that brands should not fear leaning into diversity, inclusion, and compassion — especially as we see strong indication that these will be the values that come to define this new era.

Fourth and finally, on issues specifically related to health: 67% of voters believe that government action is the best way to make healthcare more affordable — including 62% of Independents and a majority, 57%, of Republicans. Even before COVID-19, Americans are looking for greater coordination and involvement from the government when it comes to the health and safety of themselves, their families, and communities.

For many, the belief in government’s role in health is not at odds with voters’ views toward about our economic system. More than three-quarters of voters believe that “capitalism is essential to our country’s strength and prosperity,” includes — including a large majority of Democrats, 71%, and even a majority, 68%, of Bernie Sanders voters.

Before COVID-19, Americans were hungry for government leadership on their health and the healthcare system. Now, companies should feel empowered to make this case and demand action, as well as support federal and local government health efforts.

A lot has changed over the last few days — and there is more change to come. Bully Pulpit Interactive is committed to monitoring these shifts in American attitudes, and interpreting them to help guide candidates and brands during this uncertain time. We will continue to write about these issues and will conduct more research to explore how Americans are thinking and feeling in the weeks to come.




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