Political polarization and viral social movements like #grabyourwallet, #MeToo, and #TimesUp have dramatically changed the face of brand engagement and consumer loyalty, according to the Brand Keys 23rd annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI), conducted by the New York-based brand engagement and customer loyalty research consultancy. This article is copyright 2018 The Best Customer Guide.

The 2018 study examined 84 categories and 761 brands - from Automotive and OTC medications to Computers, Fast-Casual Dining, Tax Preparation and Online Investing, Retailing, Smartphones, Cable and Broadcast News, and Alcoholic Beverages.

How consumers view a category, and how they compare competing brands, changed dramatically in 94% of the measured categories. That shift resulted in brand engagement and loyalty transformation and an accompanying shift in brand leadership of 58%.

"This is the first time since the Index was initiated nearly 25 years ago where basic tenets of consumer loyalty and engagement have been turned upside-down," said Robert Passikoff, president for Brand Keys. "We've never encountered such value-adjustments before," noted Passikoff. "But then, we haven't seen this level of political polarization and social turmoil occurring at the same time since we began taking these assessments."

In 2018, the top five sectors that showed the largest shifts in category values and path-to- purchase dynamics were:

  1. Instant Messaging
  2. Retail
  3. Broadcast and Cable News
  4. Online Investing
  5. Social Networking

The top five sectors reacting most to values like Personal Responsibility, Moral Order, Family Values, Fiscal Conservatism, and Established Social Structures, all associated with Political Tribalism were:

  1. Broadcast and Cable News
  2. Online Brokerage
  3. Banks / Credit Cards
  4. Automotive
  5. Hotels (luxury)

The top five sectors reacting most to values associated with Social Activism, including Empathy, Equality, Empowerment, Individualism, and Pride, were:

  1. Retail (all sectors)
  2. Restaurants (all sectors)
  3. Social Networking
  4. Smartphones
  5. Consumer Packaged Goods

"The concept of brand engagement is pretty straightforward," added Passikoff. "Consumers have an Ideal in mind for every product and service; it's a yardstick to measure brands. Defining your category's Ideal is where it gets tricky, as the process is not only more emotionally-based than rational, but is now confounded by newer, nuanced political and social values. And, while the recent Presidential election and its aftermath have raised levels of political debate, especially contentious issues and social activism, and has created far more value-infused and complicated paths-to-purchase for consumers."

"Brand engagement is still defined by how well a brand meets the expectations consumers hold for the values that drive purchase behavior in a given category," noted Passikoff. "But category political polarization and social activism have shaken those values to their core. If marketers think they knew what consumers' 'Category Ideals' looked like before, they need to take another hard look, because consumers have an entirely new-view of what is an Ideal brand."

"Decision-making has become increasingly more emotionally-driven over the past decade. But the addition of tribal political and activist social values has transformed the brand space into something marketers have never faced. 'Business as usual' won't cut it in this brandscape. We expect to see value and expectation shifts," said Passikoff, "But we've never before measured anything on this scale! Fortunately, the integrated psychological nature of our research methodology allows us to identify newly resonant emotional values and to measure how they impact a given brand category. 2017 was the year that political tribalism and social activism rose to the top and will drastically change how successful branding will be done in the future."

"The result is a massive change in what consumers want and equally massive gaps between what they want and what brands are seen as capable of delivering," said Passikoff. "Happily, brand engagement metrics can help identify and close that gap and help marketers stay on the path to profitability."