When Do Consumer Boycotts Work?


Boycotts Force Corporations to Confront Consumer Ideals

Judith Samuelson 3:20 AM

In the book "The Naked Corporation," Don Tapscott and David Ticoll examine novel business risks that have popped up with

the internet. The democratization of free information and rise of social media means business practices can be discovered and scrutinized on a much wider scale.

“You're going to be naked,” the authors warn businesses, “so you'd better be buff.”

At a minimum, that means considering customers and employees beyond tomorrow's profit margin.

As people take to the streets to protest the actions of the new president, C.E.O.s of corporations are being challenged to take a stand — something many have been reluctant to do in the face of market pressures to keep one's head down and focus on the numbers.

The challenge today for all corporations is clear: Citizens are looking for leadership on issues of real consequence, and they are aligning their dollars with their ideals.

But for some businesses, taking a stand is good for the brand. Tech C.E.O.s are speaking outforcefully against the visa ban because they depend on the best skills and talent, no matter the nationality. Other tech employees may believe it is morally wrong to turn away refugees and legal residents — or, at least they are confident that their customers feel that way. There’s safety in numbers of course, and its best when corporations can articulate why an issue matters to their business bottom line.

Still, cultivating positive brand identity has become undoubtedly important for consumer-facing companies. Take #DeleteUber. The real aim of the boycott that went viral seemed to be to punish a business — for placing profit over community and/or for appearing to support President Trump's refugee ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. The boycott could not reverse President Trump's executive order, but it did cause Uber’s C.E.O. to drop out of President Trump’s business council.

The power and speed of social media has allowed campaigns to evolve from focusing on the consequences of a product — like the legendary Nestlé infant formula boycott in the 1970s — to labor-related issues that are within the control of the corporation. From there, they have spread to include more complex global concerns like child labor and climate change. Boycotts over an issue like deforestation could require a radical kind of agency from a company if it had to disrupt its entire supply chain to make real progress.

But some companies see real market advantages in this consumer trend. Levi Strauss and Starbucks, for example, have gotten out ahead on issues like H.I.V./Aids and water scarcity to help cultivate positive brand identity. They didn't wait for a protest or boycott: They took a preemptive moral stance.

For mass market brands, like Pepsi and McDonalds, that road can be more treacherous. Still, to address consumer demands — often articulated by a sophisticated NGO working to corral public opinion — companies typically tie their brand to big social issues, like human rights. These initiatives can require real changes for companies, however, including a change in how they source their products.

The challenge today for all corporations is clear: Citizens are looking for leadership on issues of real consequence. These issues are no longer confined to the ballot box. And consumers are aligning their dollars with their ideals.

The answer for businesses may require new forms of association in which courageous C.E.O.s can stand up and be counted.

There is a challenge for consumers, too. They must distinguish between the companies that truly push positive social change and those that just pay lip service to it.


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