Our society is currently entrenched in a civil war over gay marriage. The Supreme Court is hearing a case that challenges the constitutionality of the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law narrowly defines marriage as a union between a man and woman. Nine states and the District of Columbia previously allowed gay marriage through state supreme court rulings, until voters effectively reversed the courts’ decisions.
The Supreme Court, which mirrors our polarized society, seems to be equally split on the issue. Not only are people taking sides, but a few big brands have also jumped in to defend gay rights. I wonder if we'll start to see more brands taking a driving role as activists in our society.
For the most part, brands have avoided getting dragged into these sensitive issues. This is not surprising, as the adoption of any position can cost millions in revenue if it antagonizes a portion of the brand’s customer base.
This neutral position, however, might no longer be sustainable for a couple reasons. First is the millennial generation, American teens and twenty somethings — who are confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and empowered to vote with their wallets. Second is the new digital landscape, with social networks that provide these millennials with a platform to establish and advocate their views.
According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history. They are also more liberal and tend to support same sex-marriage.
Most importantly, millennials vote with their wallets on social issues. According to a national survey, which was conducted April 8-11, 2010 by StrategicOne, millennials are more likely to buy a product or service if they like the social or political values of the company that provides it ("buycotting"). They are also more likely NOT to buy a product or service if they disagree with the social or political values of the company ("boycotting").
The survey finds that 40% percent of younger Americans surveyed said they had boycotted, and 36% had buycotted a product or service in the past 12 months based on social or political values. Older generations are significantly less likely to report boycotting and "buycotting;" age 35-44 (33% and 24% respectively), age 45- 54 (31% and 26%), age 55-64 (34% and 25%), and age 65+ (26% and 18%).
Brands such as Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, Amazon, Zynga, eBay and Nike, each with a diverse and younger work force and customer base, have already come out supporting gay marriage. As the millennium generation’s voice grows stronger in our society, more brands may need to follow suit to maintain relevance. Staying on the sidelines of the key social issues of our time may become harder moving forward.