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Why Republicans are less anxious about Covid-19 (with some marketing thoughts that don’t have to do with hand sanitizer)

Our country (the USA) is so divided by politics that it even affects views of the COVID-19 epidemic. Ipsos ran an online poll for Reuters on March 2 &3 about attitudes towards the coronavirus outbreak and found that four in ten Democrats think the coronavirus poses an imminent threat but only two in ten Republicans do. 

How can that be? After all, doesn’t it impact both groups equally?

Well, no.

There is some validity to the difference.  After all, Conservatives tend to live in more rural areas and have less contact with people who might have traveled to areas that have been affected by the virus. As the Reuters press release noted, so far, there haven’t been any cases close to their home and friends and neighbors aren’t worried either. They are also less likely to come into contact with large crowds of people because there aren’t sizeable groups gathering where many of them live.

These views are being strengthened by Conservative media.  Fox has several times called the news about COVID-19 false. Also, behind the confidence Republicans display is that they believe in what President Trump says.  And Trump is projecting an air of confidence.  He is saying “don’t worry”, so they aren’t worrying. Instead, he is focused on the financial markets. And in his address to the country, he focused on the danger from outside the country.

These reactions illustrate the power of two of the moral foundations behind Conservatism, as described by Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics, or what I call ethical zones. Conservatives tend to be higher in Respect for Authority.  They don’t seek out information as avidly as Liberals do, instead they rely on authority figures to tell them what they need to know.   They also rely on family and friends for information more than Liberals do, which is a second ethical zone, Belonging and Community. Belonging and Community also come into play when you think the danger is from outside the borders of the country.  When both the authority figure and family and friends aren’t worried, then, they aren’t worried.

And Trish Regan’s commentary on Fox Business included the idea that Liberals are using this to bring down President Trump. This is calculated to enflame sentiments among Conservatives who are enraged that Liberals don’t respect President Trump the way that they do.  That is a violation of the Respect for Authority ethical zone.  And it engages what Brené Brown calls common enemy belonging.

Could this views change?

Yes, they could. First, because their family and friends might be affected in the future. One thought I had is that with Trump continuing to hold rallies, there could be a spread of the coronavirus among Trump supporters – God forbid.  Further, there were some attendees at the American Conservative Union’s conference (CPAC) who tested positive for the virus, so there could be an explosion of cases in the near future among the others who were there. Second, because President Trump might change his mind. He has been known to do that.

So, both of these ethical zones (Respect for Authority and Belonging and Community) could shortly be sending a different message, which will change views quickly.

But another ethical zone could come into play.  In my new book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political Divide, I make the point that the greater the number of ethical zones that support a view of an issue, the stronger the attachment is to that view. With two of the three strongest Conservative ethical zones supporting this view, it is pretty stable. But what is missing is the third ethical zone that Conservatives are stronger in, Sacredness/Purity. And COVID-19 represents perfect fodder for the ethical zone of Sacredness/Purity because diseases are a violation of purity. In fact, before I read this study, I expected Conservatives to be more activated because of that tendency.

President Trump has been described as a germophobe by people who knew him before he became president.  He uses the language associated with the Sacredness/Purity ethical zone frequently. If he starts drawing on the Sacredness/Purity ethical zone, then things could change quickly.

The intersection of coronavirus and politics with marketing

Here’s where I pivot from disease. In the above paragraphs, you can see the power of the ethical zones in driving beliefs.  That same power is at work in driving beliefs about brands. When we treat our customers or consumers as if they operate as individuals and don’t take into account their political beliefs, we are missing a driving factor behind brands.

The ethical zones are why established brands like Cheerios and Wheaties still have resonance with consumers even though they have been on the market for decades.  Too, those ethical zones are why established brands’ shares are disproportionately higher among Conservatives. Those marketers who don’t understand Conservative’s attachment to established brands and instead chase after the ephemeral, always changing, Liberal buyers, abandon their core customers.  I predict that the current trend of rejecting core customers by racing after the latest trend won’t end well for long term brands. Eventually.  I talk about this in more depth in my first book, Marketing Landmines: The Next Generation of Emotional Branding.

I can help you figure out the implications of the political beliefs of your customers and what you can do about it. Email me for details.

Update:  This is a fast moving story.  After President Trump asked people to take precautions, Fox Business took Trish Regan off the air.  It will be interesting to see how attitudes change. 

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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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