The personality of a brand is routinely measured utilizing the same descriptors used for classifying the personalities of people. However, until now, there was no way we were aware of to measure the moral and ethical values of a brand. We thought it would be illuminating to develop such an instrument. Adapting Jonathan Haidt’s framework for measuring what he calls people’s “Moral Foundations” we created a methodology that successfully was able to do just that; our findings, about the relevance of different moral values of brands to political conservatives and liberals, closely converge on Haidt’s. In the light of the increasingly divisive and polarized atmosphere in the United States and many countries, worldwide, we feel the measurement of a brand’s Moral Foundations is not just another brand model, but an essential tool for managing that brand’s political and financial futures.
Brands’ Moral Foundations
When is it right for a brand to risk attaching its reputation to one side or another of a controversial issue? Do brands actually have a choice, can they remain neutral to and above the raging issues of the moment? As the nation and its politics are becoming increasingly polarized the questions of whether brands are or should become more politicized, are becoming more and more relevant
Can brands still hope to appeal to everyone across the political spectrum? Recently, Aaron K. Chatterji, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, in a New York Times article about activist CEO’s wrote ” Brands are likely to become even more segmented into red and blue, strengthening the association between liberals and Priuses and conservatives and Cracker Barrel.” Chatterji went on to propose that perhaps it is better to be intensely loved by a few than inoffensive to many. Professor Jerry Davis of Ross School of Business at Michigan echoes this point of view in more than one article. Are these commenters overstating the case? Or, have they touched on something important and relevant in the times in which we find ourselves embroiled.
This is not a new issue, of course, and there are a number of threads that need to be parsed in order to define the question more precisely. Corporations and brands have used “cause-related” marketing since the 1980’s in an attempt to “do well by doing good”. In the past, they generally planted their flags into non-controversial issues, such as poverty relief. More recently, however, CEO’s like Howard Schultz of Starbucks or Tim Cooke of Apple have ventured into more divisive issues ranging from President Trump to religion-based discrimination against same-sex couples. While the brands’ positioning do not necessarily express these views, the brands are lending their weight to amplify the views of their management.
If management goes further and decides the company has a purpose or mission beyond delivering shareholder value, and should therefore take a stand on certain issues, there could be consequences. The perceptions of the brand may well become associated with these views. The values espoused by management may or may not be intrinsic to the brands themselves, and there may or may not be a “fit” between them, yet they may very well define or redefine the values of the brand.
There are brands whose values are intrinsic to them—either through the products they produce or the messages they create. Consider the issue of the genetic modification of food and the Monsanto brand. Genetic modification (GMO) is intrinsic to Monsanto’s business and the products it markets. There is strong opposition to GMO and that opposition is strongest among people who identify themselves as liberal (?). As a result, Monsanto has become a symbol of “illiberal” values, not necessarily embraced by management but inferred upon the brand, nonetheless. Remember the days in the 1980’s – before Apple became a Corporate behemoth and financial gorilla? The Apple brand was the iconoclast, the insurgent, the symbol of liberation from enslavement to the oppressive forces of IBM and the PC. Now, instead of being anti-establishment, Apple is the establishment. In both these cases the brands’ values are intrinsic to them, not derived. Here the brands themselves define – or at least confine – the social/political agenda available to the company
Undoubtedly brands can and do have values – implicit or by association; the question is not whether it is happening, but whether it matters. Does the current toxic political atmosphere prevent brands from “reaching across the aisle” for a bi-partisan franchise? Is it wise for a brand to stay out of the fray; is it possible? How credible are brands as a vehicle for social causes?
In order to get a better understanding, we need to dig below the specific social and political issues that brands get involved with and examine the roots – the underlying values that give rise to them. Such understanding will put brands in a better position to decide which issues to take or not take on to further their corporate aims.
In the context of people’s political values, no one has done this better than Jonathan Haidt, in his ground-breaking work on “Moral Foundations”, popularly described in his 2012 book “The Righteous Mind”. In it, he explains how he identified five dimensions that underlie people’s “moral intuition”, the nearly instantaneous set of perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong. These are the five Moral Foundations:
o Sensitivity to signs of suffering and need;. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance and makes us despise cruelty
o Sensitivity to the concept of reciprocal altruism. It is based on justice, rights, and shared rules.
o Sensitivity to signs that another person is/is not a team player. Makes us want to trust and reward or alternatively ostracize people. It is the foundation that underlies patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group
o Sensitivity to signs of rank or status and to signs that others are/are not behaving properly, given their position. It underlies virtues of leading and following, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions and stability.
o Sensitivity to what and who are judged pure and what and who are contaminated. Highly related to opinions of abortion, same sex marriage, casual sex and immigration.
Haidt’s research shows – and has shown consistently – that politically Liberal people value the first two foundations – Caring and Fairness – far more than the latter three; conservatives, in contrast. endorse all five foundations more or less equally.
In a study carried out last year by BlackBar Consulting, we addressed ourselves to the question as to whether brands possess Moral Foundations. Using an adaptation of Haidt’s questionnaire that is applicable to brands (which is available on the website of the Moral ???) we measured 20 brands on the scales representing the Moral Foundation dimensions. We were successful in identifying and measuring four of them – all but the last one, Sanctity/Degradation. For the present purposes, we show one data chart whose results we found intriguing.
One of the attributes on which we measured the brands was the statement “Shares My Values”. The chart shows the extent to which, across all 20 brands, scores on that statement correlated with each of the four Moral Foundations, and how that varied according to party political allegiance.
The conclusion we drew from the chart is that people’s inferences about brands’ moral foundations almost exactly parallel Haidt’s findings:
People who identify themselves as Democrats (for the most part, presumed Liberals) are more likely than Republicans to share values with brands they identify with the Caring and Fairness foundations
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to share values with brands they identify with the Loyalty and Authority foundations
Brands are not just the passive instruments of the stands taken by corporations on social and political issues; they do have their own moral foundations—explicit, implied and/or inferred . In future posts, we will take a look at what this might mean for the future of branded businesses – from both a financial point of view, and in terms of the ability of these businesses to pursue a specific social/political agenda.
We have successfully measured the Moral Foundations of Brands. Our findings, about the relevance of different moral values of brands to political conservatives and liberals, closely converge on Haidt’s:
Liberals are more likely than Conservatives to say they share the values of brands they identify as embracing Haidt’s two “Liberal” Foundations:
· Caring – sensitivity to signs of suffering and need
· Fairness – sensitivity to indications that another person is likely to be a good/bad partner
Conservatives are more likely than Liberals to say they share the values of brands they identify as embracing two of Haidt’s “Conservative” Foundations:
· Loyalty – sensitivity to signs that another person is/not a team player
· Authority – sensitivity to signs of rank or status
In these days of heightened political polarization, brands can no longer stay out of the political arena; and indeed some brands choose to be active in it. How this will affect brands’ consumer franchises, now that the era of bi-partisan or politically neutral brands is ending, becomes a pressing question.
In this increasing polarized environment, much more independent research and analysis needs to be done to guide how to maintain both brands’ values and the value of brands, while successfully harnessing them to corporate social/political values. Areas for research include:
· Understanding the relevance of brands’ moral foundations across different economic sectors.
· Examining the financial impact of brands’ moral foundations.
· Identifying how brands’ moral foundations point to new consumer segmentations.