How often should brands take a stand?

New research suggests consumers have low expectations when it comes to the issues companies will act on.

A new global report by PR and reputation management agency FleishmanHillard (known locally as FleishmanHillard HighRoad) sheds light on the societal issues consumers feel most strongly about, as well as how often they feel brands should get involved in addressing those issues.

As it turns out, consumers do not expect brands to take a stand on all issues – but they do expect action on the issues that are under a company’s control.

The “Authenticity Gap” report explores consumer attitudes on a range of issues and trends within Canada, the U.S., China, Germany, the U.K. and Brazil, including their experiences with more than 300 companies across 30 different industries. The research, conducted with True Global Intelligence, FleishmanHillard’s internal research and analytics practice, includes a survey of 7,364 consumers between 18 to 65 years old.

Companies are increasingly feeling pressured to take a stand on divisive issues, according to the report, but that doesn’t mean they expect to act on very issue. Rather, the findings suggest consumers expect companies to address the issues that are clearly under their control. For example, Fleishman reports that three out of every four consumers expect CEOs to take a position on issues that impact their customers (74%), products and services (72%) and employees (71%).

But among the issues respondents indicated feeling most strongly about – data security (83%), data privacy (82%), climate change (75%) and income wage gaps (71%) – a significantly lower amount of consumers expect corporations to take action, with 59%, 58%, 53% and 44%, respectively, expecting some kind of work on the issues. Given the prevalence of these top-of-mind issues, however, FleishmanHillard suggests brands should be developing and testing on authentic position and point of view – if they don’t have one already.

The same trend was observed among issues deemed moderately important and for which the agency still suggests being prepared to take a stand or have a position ready. For example, 84% said they viewed access to affordable, quality healthcare as extremely or very important, but only 36% said they expect brands to take a stand on the issue.

“Turns out, the issues consumers most care about (and it varies quite a bit by country) isn’t exactly the same list as the issues where consumers expect companies to speak out,” notes Marjorie Benzkofer, CSO and global managing director of reputation management at FleishmanHillard, in the report. “Driven by a sense of realism, consumers know companies can’t fix everything, but they expect them to be most active on those issues most under their control.”

The question of data, in particular, is running high on consumers’ minds – above environmental action, even, as noted above. Today, only 41% of consumers are willing to have their data collected for greater convenience, while 63% are less likely to support companies that use data to their own benefit. What’s more, a majority of respondents (73%) want businesses to have protection practices in place that go beyond regulatory mandates.

Moreover, the research suggests that while around 70% of consumers want organizations to demonstrate how their having a positive impact on the environment and society when launching a new product or service, that alone is not enough. In fact, according to the report, only 47% of consumer attitudes to a brand are influenced by products and services. The other 53% is shaped by their knowledge of how management behaves and the way the company engages with social issues.