May 23, 2023 - Economy

Disney's reputation hit by polarizing political drama

Data: Axios Harris Poll 100; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Walt Disney Company took a big hit in this year's Axios Harris Poll 100, dropping a dozen spots, to 77th, after tangling with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over students' LGBTQ+ rights.

Why it matters: In voicing opposition to DeSantis' so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill last year, Disney gained favor with Democrats but took such a large reputation hit with Republicans that its overall reputation score was severely impacted.

By the numbers: The company was ranked the fifth most polarizing brand of 100 in this year's survey — measured by the gap between the assessments of Republican and Democratic respondents.

  • Overall, Disney's Reputational Quotient, or RQ®, score was 70.9 out of a possible 100. That's down from 73.4 in 2022. The score represents measurements across multiple dimensions that touch on character, trust and trajectory.
  • Among Democrats, it jumped to 80.3 from 72.5. But it plunged 14 points with Republicans, to 61 from 75.
  • The average RQ gap between Republicans and Democrats in this year's survey was 4.4. In Disney's case, it was 19.3. While Disney's reputation score has been declining since the 2017 survey, that trend had been bipartisan — until this year.

Zoom in: Respondents were asked how they felt about Disney now compared with a year ago.

  • 44% of Democrats but only 21% of Republicans said they were feeling more positive about the company.
  • Meanwhile, 42% of Republicans said their feelings about Disney grew more negative over the past year, compared with 12% of Democrats.
  • 35% of Republicans but just 19% of Democrats said Disney has become less authentic and more divisive.
  • 63% of Democrats but 46% of Republicans describe the company as family-oriented.

Catch up quick: Under its former leadership, Disney initially declined to comment on the bill, which has since become law, but then reversed course following an outcry from its employees.

  • DeSantis has since gone to war with Disney, pushing the state to take control over Disney's self-governing district and threatening to build a prison or a competing theme park near Disney's Florida park.
  • The fight has forced Disney to reevaluate its political relationship with Florida, where it has more than 80,000 employees. Last week, the company canceled plans for a new, nearly $1 billion employee campus in Orlando.

Between the lines: Disney lost momentum across each of nine attributes measured in the Axios Harris 100 poll — with the biggest declines among citizenship and growth.

  • Disney lost 6.2 points in perceptions of future growth, 4.3 points on citizenship ("shares my values" and "supports good causes") and 2.9 points on ethics.

What they're saying: "The lesson here is that when you divide you subtract," said Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema. "When you divide audiences, you're ultimately going to be subtracting customers for your business."

  • Unlike brands like Patagonia or Chick-fil-A that already are identified with ideological or policy views, Disney "didn't have a track record for speaking out on this issue," came to the issue late and flip-flopped, Gerzema said.
  • Wide majorities of survey respondents see companies trying to appease the left and right at once, and they respond negatively to that perception, or feel the positioning is a marketing ploy, Gerzema said.
  • Disney, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

The big picture: Party identification plays an undeniable role in how Americans view major brands. The top 10 most politically polarized companies in the survey were:

  1. Trump Organization
  2. Fox Corporation
  3. Hobby Lobby
  4. FTX
  5. The Walt Disney Co.
  6. Pfizer
  7. Facebook (Meta)
  8. TikTok
  9. Twitter
  10. Chick-fil-A

Details: John Deere, Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A were among Republicans' top five list. Trader Joe's, USAA, Honda Motor Co. and Apple were among Democrats' top five performing brands. Notably, Pfizer — which developed a COVID-19 vaccine — appeared on Democrats' top 10 list.

  • Outdoor retailer Patagonia made both lists at No. 3, though its ideological alignment is left of center. That's because Patagonia ranks high in terms of quality of products and services, which often helps brands transcend any political perceptions.

Yes, but: Politics isn't the only determinant of brand reputation.

  • Gen Z and millennials put Patagonia at the top of their list, while Gen X and boomers combined put John Deere at the top. Rural consumers put 3M on top, while city dwellers cited Patagonia and suburban shoppers stocked up at Costco.

Go deeper: Full results and poll methodology

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