03/29/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

Business Implications of Shifting Public Opinion on Gay Marriage

In the run up to this week's oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a number of high-profile politicians have reversed their position on gay marriage. President Bill Clinton called on the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA -- the law he signed in 1996. Hillary Clinton also recently endorsed gay marriage. On the Republican side, Rob Portman became the first GOP Senator (and hopefully not the last) to change his position on gay marriage after learning that his son was gay.

But this topic has not only been on the minds of politicians -- it's been on the minds of the business community as well. More than 100 companies recently signed onto a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of gay marriage. And in this collection of pro-gay marriage advertisements compiled by The Huffington Post, companies from Budweiser to Target to Amazon have made it clear where their company stands.

Global Strategy Group (GSG) recently released a study examining the interplay between business and politics and we came across an interesting finding with respect to gay marriage. (For full disclosure, I work for GSG and we commissioned this study ourselves as part of the company's thought leadership initiative).

Our study found that in theory, just 31 percent of Americans think it is appropriate (and 69 percent say it is inappropriate) for a business to take a stance on "social issues such as abortion or gay marriage." However, we also found that the public is supportive of companies who support gay marriage in practice.

Take the case of Nordstrom. Late last year, Nordstrom endorsed gay marriage in a memo to their employees. In our study, we found that 68 percent of Americans think it was appropriate for Nordstrom's to take this action. That's a huge increase -- 37 points higher -- than the number who think it is appropriate for a company to take a position on social issues in theory.

Why is there a disconnect between the abstract (that gut feeling Americans have that companies should stay out of politics) and the real world approval of Nordstrom positioning? The reason is that the public evaluates a company's political positioning not by the type of communications (social issues vs. business issues) but by what they actually say and do. And what Nordstrom -- and others -- are saying is in harmony with the public's shifting views on gay marriage. Pew Research Center recently reported that "rise in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade is among the largest changes in opinion on any policy issue over this time period."

One of our study's key findings is that it can be a negative for businesses to wade too far into politics. And some of the coverage of our study -- as in the Politico article published yesterday -- appropriately focuses on the downside risk. But entering the fray is not always a net negative. Our study found that 42 percent of the public said they became more favorable towards Nordstrom's after reading their position on gay marriage, while just 24 percent became less favorable. Companies that do this right can reap the benefits by keeping a pulse on public opinion, rolling out their beliefs in a thoughtful way, and framing their position in a way that feels appropriate to their business (i.e. Nordstrom making this about their employees).

Many politicians have shifted their positioning on gay marriage because they see the writing on the wall -- public opinion is changing and they should too. Companies are learning that lesson as well and many would be wise to follow suit despite the aversion of many in corporate America to wade into the waters of controversial social issues. Supporting gay marriage may not just be the right thing to do, it might also be good for business.

Click here for more on GSG's study on business and politics.

Editor's note: A previous version of this blog post incorrectly indicated that Nordstrom does not provide life partner benefits to their employees. They have provided such benefits since 1998.