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Marketing Professor Studies the Politics of Brands

Ashwin MalsheDoes a consumer’s political affiliation affect their views about a brand? Ashwin Malshe, assistant professor of marketing at The University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) College of Business, and his colleagues have found that it does.

Working with his peers from Collaborative for CUBES, Malshe co-authored recently “The Unequal Effects of Partisanship on Brands,” in the Harvard Business Review online. The article was co-authored with Vikas Mittal, Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and Shrihari Sridhar, at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

Their research focuses on customer loyalty to 45 specific retail brands. They surveyed customers to map how their political affiliation affects brand perception and how a customer speaks about a brand, known as word-of-mouth marketing.

“In analyzing the survey results, we found a low level of agreement between customers who identify as either Democrat or Republican. Only 36 percent of their brand classifications matched,” says Malshe, who teaches social media marketing and data analytics in the College of Business.

“Considering research that supports a customer preference to buy brands that align with their political views, we wanted to measure how a company taking a strong political stance may impact word-of-mouth marketing and their bottom line.”

Activities that result in mostly negative word-of-mouth marketing can make companies vulnerable and hurt revenue and growth. The article suggests that companies should consider if their stance aligns with their existing customer’s political affiliations, and how vocal they should be in representing that political stance. There is also a potential cost of remaining neutral, if customers have an expectation that a brand take action.

“An interesting example that didn’t make it into the article, but occurred around the time we were publishing, is when Delta decided to drop the National Rifle Association from their discount fare program. Although Delta indicated it was in an effort to be politically neutral, it resulted in backlash from the state legislature, which caught national media attention,” shares Malshe.

“It would have been interesting to study how customer perception of Delta, word-of-mouth marketing and their bottom line were impacted during this time. Based on our research, I would expect customer perception to be strongly divided and heavily influenced by political affiliation.”

It takes a long time to build a successful brand, and mega brands often have customers at both ends of the political spectrum. With the exponential growth of social media, word-of-mouth marketing has greater reach and impact than ever before.

“When you consider the reach of social media as one of the best ways to share word-of-mouth marketing, companies must understand and consider social influence. They need to know who their customers are, and consider the potential impact of taking a strong political stance,” concludes Malshe.

“I will be teaching a social media marketing course in the college’s Executive MBA program that examines issues related to a firm’s social media initiatives. The goal is to create greater awareness and help company leaders make better strategic decisions around word-of-mouth marketing, which may impact a company’s bottom line in the short- and long-term.”

Based on this research, senior leadership should strongly consider customer political affiliation before taking a political stand. Not understanding the potential impact on customer attitude and word-of-mouth marketing is a mistake – but if done strategically, it can create positive business outcomes and enhance an organization’s brand power.

–Melissa Lackey

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