Survey: Companies Should (Sort of) Shut Up and listen.

The P.R. agency Ruder Finn just released a survey on consumers and companies that take positions on issues. The most important thing, or so says a new survey, is for companies to respond to consumers.

The survey is called “Collaboration & Consensus: Do Consumers Feel Heard?

It asked whether consumers felt “listened to” by brands, and whether consumers wanted to hear from brands on public issues. For instance, only 38% of Gen Z thought it was easy to contact brands, compared to 58% of Gen X. In the survey, 43% would find they thought a brand better if it had “heard my point of view” even if the company differed. Over half said that they would consider purchasing from a brand they had a negative opinion of if they were able to engage with the company positively.

“Leaders and companies need not take sides on polarizing public issues, but suggests they should allow discourse between all voices, honoring both negative and positive views,” said Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn, in a press release.

The definition of “engagement” was defined as writing an online review, contacting a brand or boycotting a brand.

“Leaders and companies need not take sides on polarizing public issues, but suggests they should allow discourse between all voices, honoring both negative and positive views,”

Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

The conclusion? It was rare for a consumer to reach out to a brand about a point of view on an issue. Only 5 percent had. What was more common was that more consumers are engaging directly with companies through online reviews and mentions, and consumers felt better about companies when they engaged back, even if they did not agree.

“It’s more important to show that you’re listening than it is to speak out. This has significant implications for today’s leadership style and determining how leaders engage with groups with different opinions.” 

Companies Agitate Consumers

While the conclusions seem quite obvious to the average consumer, many companies have been taking an alternate course, using political stances and positioning to drive engagement on social media platforms, thereby spurring news coverage. These company opinions have often been the opinions of employees, consultants and agencies, who have their own agendas.

Companies like Disney, Delta, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Coca-Cola and many others have taken engagement to a new level, weighing in and taking sides on on voting law implementation, public school administration and bedroom practices. This new habit has entertained one group of consumers, and annoyed others.

An example of the danger area is something like the removal of circus cages from Nabisco Animal Crackers, seen in a photo above. While this was a marketing move, ostensibly, the way the company engaged with consumers after doing it would affect how well it came off.

While the survey was not about corporate woke-ism, it does signal a back to basics approach, namely that companies need to respond to all of their constituent groups, and interact in positive ways when these opinions have implications for the brand.

Some results:

  • When managing crises, business leaders should not be afraid to engage with critics or consumers with opposing points of view. Facing these opinions head-on shows a willingness to listen and participate in a dialogue. An open forum de-escalates the polarization of a crisis.
  • Brands do not need to engage on every public issue, but they do need to actively listen when something relates to their brand.
  • An “empathetic listening model” both “internally & externally” was the future of consumer engagement.

Advice for the CEO and CMO

The results are not a surprise to old school opinions about politics and business, and how companies need to operate. The old norm was that companies needed to stick to their actual business, and stay close to all of their customers, no matter their customers’ differing opinions. If a CEO or employee makes a political donation, the company needs to be able to speak to consumers who might be offended, or disagree. If the company needs to be involved in an issue because it relates to their operations, they need to explain it carefully, and hear the opinions of all of their consumers.

The survey drew on the responses from 1,000 U.S. consumers, ages 16 and above, who were surveyed between December 19, 2022, and December 20, 2022. 

Wholly owned agencies within Ruder Finn Group include: Ruder Finn Inc., Osmosis Films, Touchdown, Peppercomm, Comunicad, Mantis, RLA Collective, jacobstahl, RF Bloom, and SPI Group.


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