Lea Huhn and Victoria Meil
Political polarization and partisan antipathy between liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans) are accelerating in the United States and politics have become an integral aspect of consumers’ lives (Pew Research Center 2014). Looking at the news, political disputes, ranging from climate crisis to police violence, dominate the headlines and create more division in opinions than ever before (Ordabayeva et al. 2021). Politics thus profoundly influence individuals who not only increasingly associate their political views with their personal identity but, consequently, become more engaged and demanding in today’s highly partisan society (Global Strategy Group 2021).
These trends are far-reaching for marketers: several studies on political and consumer psychology reveal that political beliefs subconsciously influence consumers’ choices and trigger engagement in marketplace activism. Liberals and conservatives exhibit distinct behaviors across various aspects of daily life, such as lifestyle preferences, supermarket choices, recycling habits, and engagement in disputes (Carney et al. 2008; DellaPosta, Shi, and Macy 2015; Khan, Misra, and Singh 2013; Ordabayeva and Fernandes 2019; Kidwell, Farmer, and Hardesty 2013; Winterich et al. 2012; Jung et al. 2017). Additionally, research shows that political ideologies are amplified through polarization, leading to explicit product buy-or-boycott behaviors (Jost et al. 2017; Fernandes 2020). Given the rising tide of political polarization in the American public and the salience of political orientations (Pew Research Center, 2014), it is therefore highly important for marketing managers to understand how political ideologies implicitly and explicitly impact consumer behavior, and to leverage this knowledge in brand management (Marketing Science Institute 2022, p. 4).
Implicit Influence of Politics on Consumer Behavior
How do political beliefs subconsciously influence consumer decision-making? Vast research on political psychology has shown that varying consumption patterns between liberals and conservatives can to a great extent be explained by looking at their underlying psychological foundations, which divert in terms of personality traits, motivations, and moral foundations (for an explicit review, see Jung and Mittal 2020).
For instance, political psychology research found that liberals are more open-minded and expressive, whereas conservatives are more conscientious (Carney et al. 2008, p. 836). In practice, these findings have been found to account for different lifestyle preferences: while liberals tend to have more colorful and creative rooms with a variety of books, music CDs, and travel-related items, conservatives’ rooms are more organized and less stylish (Carney et al. 2008, p. 832). In addition, DellaPosta, Shi, and Macy (2015) discovered that liberals are much more likely to attend a concert than conservatives and prefer music styles such as jazz or reggae (DellaPosta, Shi, and Macy 2015, p. 1482). Furthermore, in low-involvement decisions such as supermarket shopping, Khan, Misra, and Singh (2013) found that conservatives are more likely to purchase well-established brands while liberals lean towards generics and newly launched products (p. 332). On the contrary shopping occasion, namely in high-involvement situations, research by Ordabayeva and Fernandes (2019) indicates that conservatives tend to pursue vertical differentiation by consuming products that indicate superiority in the social hierarchy, while liberals seek horizontal differentiation by using products that highlight their uniqueness and equality (p. 228). These findings can be explained by looking at the inner motivations of both liberals and conservatives, with conservatives seeking security and upholding traditions, and liberals being more open to change and challenging existing structures to address inequality (Jung and Mittal 2020, p. 56; Jost 2017, p. 513). In addition, theories from political psychology show that liberals prioritize moral concerns related to fairness, which are less salient to conservatives. Instead, conservatives place greater importance on binding foundations such as in-group loyalty (Graham, Haidt, and Nosek 2009, p. 1029). Kidwell, Farmer, and Hardesty (2013) found that liberals respond more positively to recycling appeals emphasizing individualizing moral foundations, whereas conservatives are more influenced by appeals framed in terms of duty and in-group loyalty.
Thus, “ideological differences are more than skin deep” (Carney et al. 2008, p. 834) and play a decisive role in consumer behavior, even if such behaviors are not related to politics (Jung and Mittal 2020, p. 55).
Explicit Influence of Politics on Consumer Behavior
Beyond implicitly shaping consumer actions, recent studies have shown that political polarization exerts additional influence on consumers’ behavior and drives consumer activism, with individuals boycotting or supporting brands based on their political affiliations. Indeed, surveys show that about 38% of American consumers have boycotted at least one company in their lives due to political disagreements (Lending Tree 2020). Particularly after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, political polarization led to increased preference polarization with liberals (conservatives) stronger preferring, purchasing, and consuming liberal (conservative) brands (Schoenmueller et al. 2022, p. 48). Especially liberals though displayed a stronger affinity to consume Democratic brands as a means to indirectly support their threatened system (see Cutright et al. 2011, p. 65, for the theory of compensatory consumption). Further research supports the findings that liberals are more eager to engage in forms of buy- or boycotts to signal a demand for social change, protest against wrongdoings (Jost et al. 2017, p. 507), or in conviction of their moral values related to harm and fairness (Fernandes 2020, p. 494).
Political polarization thus intensifies the effect that political orientations impose on consumer decision-making (Weber et al. 2021, pp. 191-92). Therefore, politicized consumers actively reward or punish brands through buy-or boycotts depending on whether they can self-identify with the brands’ values.
Strategic and Practical Implications for Marketing Decision-Making
But what do these findings imply for marketing managers? As liberals and conservatives increasingly view their world through blue and red-colored glasses, politics’ implicit and explicit influences on consumption are said to grow. Therefore, marketing managers should pay attention to understanding the subtle but still prominent impacts that political ideologies impose on consumer behavior and how these are becoming more salient and explicit through political polarization. Precisely, it is important for managers to realize how the differing personality traits, motivations, and moral concerns between liberals and conservatives shape consumption patterns and to acknowledge that, as a result, targeting both groups homogeneously might not be effective in today’s highly politicized marketplace. Instead, political ideologies should be integrated into companies’ marketing strategies to better understand and anticipate consumer behavior and activism (Ordabayeva et al. 2020). Especially given Big Data Analytics, artificial intelligence, social media usage and followership, or the public availability of voting polls (Jost 2017, p. 513), it is effortless and uncomplicated to identify consumers’ political ideologies and to incorporate political data into decision-making. To survive and flourish in a divided market, it might even be imperative to consider consumers’ political orientations in segmentation, targeting, positioning, and communication tactics to create long-lasting value for each political camp (Ordabayeva et al. 2020).
Apart from leveraging political ideologies in marketing strategy, marketers might also consider engaging in more direct means of leveraging political ideologies by actively taking a “public stance on controversial sociopolitical issues” (Hydock, Paharia, and Blair 2020, p. 1136). As recent surveys show, 79% of US consumers expect companies to take a stand in political debates and perceive brands that do not speak up as irresponsible (Global Strategy Group 2021, p. 6). On the other hand, brand activism can also lead to polarized responses and loss of customers, as exemplified by Nike’s featuring of Colin Kaepernick in their Just Do It campaign (Fernandes 2020, p. 489). However, notwithstanding these potential risks, the participation of firms in brand activism can still yield positive results. To arrive at a positive net outcome, it is imperative for managers to thoroughly analyze their target audience’s motivations and moral foundations (Bhagwat et al. 2020, p. 17; Mukherjee and Althuizen 2020, p. 37), focus on addressing less-divisive topics (Global Strategy Group 2021, p. 9) and to overall consider their messaging carefully.
In sum, managers should take steps to effectively incorporate consumers’ political orientation in marketing strategies while remaining sensitive to the potential risks associated with navigating political issues. As the political landscape is shifting, political ideologies are boosted worldwide – marketers must do justice to these trends and must understand that “just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean that politics won’t take an interest in you” (Ordabayeva et al. 2020).