A Q&A with the Assistant Professor of Marketing on his research, covering the effects of brand positions in marketing and how they’re impacted by the polarization of politics.
By Laura Maranta
Think of the last time you noticed a brand endorse a political candidate or support a social movement. Most likely you can recall a recent example. Over the last few years consumers have become increasingly aware of brands engaging in Corporate Political Advocacy (CPA). To put this terminology simply, companies are declaring their support for political and social movements through marketing. The connection between companies and their political stances has been studied by Cal Poly Assistant Professor of Marketing, Dr. Chris Hydock. His recently published article, “Should Brands Take a Position on Polarizing Political Issues?” can be found in the Journal of Marketing Research and focuses on the effects of CPA, authenticity, and other factors on consumer support.
Hydock joins the marketing conversation with a background in cognitive neuroscience, which offered him an understanding of human thought and cognition as an undergraduate and graduate student. His transition into marketing was driven by his desire to better understand how humans act in the real world, specifically, the acknowledgement that a majority of our decisions are made in a marketing and consumption context. He brings this perspective to his own research as well as the classroom. “Marketing is the customer facing portion of the business,” he says, “and to do well they need to understand the customers. Their customers are human, so from a psychology perspective and a consumer behavior perspective, we are all about understanding how people make decisions. Every class I tie in some lessons from psychology and consumer behavior to marketing because they are closely related.”
We followed up with Hydock to discuss the impact of this research, how it has affected his own consumer habits, and where he plans to take his work next.
Can you give a brief background on your work and why you study what you study?
I broadly look at consumer behavior and try to use that to generate insights for marketing strategy. One line of my work really looks at the intersection of marketing and politics. The early stages of this project go all the way back to 2013 when we were seeing an uptick in brands engaging in CPA. We started to notice that this was becoming more and more popular and we wanted to think about and understand what the implications were for brands and more broadly ask how marketing and politics might intersect to change how we act as consumers, how brands act, and how that changes society.
Do you think this research would have had the same value before 2020? What effects do social media and the current political movements have on this research?
I think the value has been there for the last 10 or so years. I think this highlights the question of whether or not social media has spurred brands to become more engaged in politics or CPA, or is there something else that changed. I actually have another research paper with one of the marketing faculty, that is looking at political polarization more broadly. There has been a lot of research in political science about polarization, which suggests simplistically that the two parties are moving further and further apart. You see that not only are they farther and farther apart in terms of their policies but in terms of how they treat each other and how reactive they are. I think political polarization is what really drove the shift. In the past brands would only interact with their stakeholders through charitable or philanthropic events, things that everyone would support. But as society became more polarized they shifted into thinking beyond just donating money to the Red Cross, or supporting education. Now they donate money to a political campaign or support a specific political policy. Based on my other work, politics is really starting to seep into all other parts of society as we become more polarized.
Can you speak a little bit about the effect of authenticity and how the bandwagon effect appeared in your research?
We find that when a brand engages in political advocacy in an inauthentic way, it removes the benefit that brands often see from political advocacy. Stepping back, we see that overall political advocacy tends to be more beneficial for small brands whereas it tends to be harmful for large brands. Essentially, if you are a small brand and want to engage in political advocacy as a way to improve your economic standing, it’s important to note that customer support for you will decrease if they detect that you’re acting in a selfish or self-interested way. In some ways this isn’t too surprising. What was more surprising were the harmful effects of both authentic and inauthentic CPA. If you are a larger brand and you engage in CPA and people detect your motives are inauthentic, it’s also going to harm you in the sense that customers are going to punish you for being inauthentic. But large brands also run the risk that their customers might punish them for disagreeing with their beliefs. Coming back to thinking about what you need to do as a brand, the underlying lesson is don’t let yourself get into a trap where you are just trying to use CPA as a way to gain customers because if it seems inauthentic you won’t get that same benefit. And it could have drawbacks, especially for larger brands, even if it is authentic.
As society has become more polarized, brands have shifted into thinking beyond just donating money to the Red Cross, or supporting education. Now they donate money to a political campaign or to support a specific political policy. Based on my work, politics is really starting to seep into all parts of society.
What effect do you think this paper will have on marketing and companies in general?
Over the last few years we’ve seen brands be a little bit more careful about their CPA and I think that this paper will increase the knowledge of what some of the factors that you need to consider are. We looked at brand size and large market share versus small market share, and we looked at authenticity. But there’s really a plethora of factors that go into deducing what the ultimate effects of CPA might be for a brand. From an academic marketing perspective, there may be a new flood of research that looks at what negatively affects these outcomes. I think brands are doing that on their own already, because they are responsible not only for their own moral obligations but because they are also responsible for stakeholders. As a result, they have to think about these consequences. I think the biggest takeaway of this research [for companies] is understanding their market share. If you’re a smaller share company, there’s a lot less to lose by engaging in CPA and you can even stretch this a little bit further and say there’s a lot less to lose by engaging in any controversial or divisive brand action.
How much has this research affected you as a consumer?
I think sometimes a brand might have gone too far and I really can’t justify purchasing that brand or going into that retailer. But at the same time, as consumers, we have a lot of priorities. I think we make a lot of tradeoffs, to the extent that we have easy choices we are going to factor in when processing this information. But I also think there is a limit to how much people are willing to trade-off in terms of their own value in order to support or punish a brand. There are probably going to be categories of consumption where that is easier or more difficult. More of what has come out of this research is that I have a greater disdain for political polarization and the extreme ends of both parties. That has been how it has really changed me. My mindset is more, “Let’s figure out how we can move away from polarization and more towards compromise or finding middle ground.”
Where do you think your research will take you next?
We have that paper looking at political polarization and marketing that is finishing up. There, we highlight that CPA is one consequence but we also think about some of the other consequences of political polarization for marketing. You can imagine that it’s going to impact a lot of segmentation and targeting. There’s a lot of thought in marketing that considers how we can better target and segment a more polarized population. We see that political differences go far beyond what someone believes in terms of abortion or tax policy, for example. We see that Republicans and Democrats have different preferences in terms of wanting trucks or cars, or how much they like amusement parks—Republicans tend to like amusement parks more. There are definitely dangers in customers becoming increasingly different from each other. I have another paper that’s looking at some of the other factors that impact the consumer response to CPA and one of the interesting things is that the existing customers of a brand punish it more than the non-customers when they engage in CPA. This data set again will allow us to differentiate general consumers from actual customers and we want to look at understanding how customers versus consumers in general respond to CPA.