Will Your Brand Boycott Actually Make a Difference?

By Dan Rafter on 12 December 2016 0 comments

Interest rates aren't the only thing on the rise after Donald Trump's election night win. Threats of product boycotts are soaring, too.

Breitbart News, for example, is encouraging its readers to boycott Kellogg's after the cereal maker pulled advertising from the conservative site. Supporters of the incoming president also threatened a boycott of Pepsi after mistakenly believing that the company's chief executive officer said that Trump supporters should take their business elsewhere.

Opponents of Trump have threatened their own boycott of shoemaker New Balance after its vice president of public affairs told The Wall Street Journal that the company's officials believe that "things are going to move in the right direction" after the businessman's election. The comment actually referred to the debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but many in the anti-Trump camp thought the shoemaker was tossing out a "support Trump" message.

Will any of these boycotts work? Will enough consumers stop buying Cornflakes or Diet Pepsi to actually hurt the companies making them?

And if you stop buying these products, will you make a difference?

The Struggle to Make an Impact

Consumers have vowed to boycott plenty of products. But only a small number of these boycotts actually work. Those that do succeed, according to a story by the Harvard Business Review, are highly strategic and have clear goals. They want to force a company into a specific concession, such as eliminating a controversial ad campaign or removing a potentially harmful ingredient from their products. But boycotts that simply call for consumers to stop buying a certain brand forever? Those rarely have a long-term impact.

Boycott's Long History

The word boycott as a form of shunning actually came into being way back in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland. Back then, Captain Charles Boycott — a land agent working for an absentee landlord — threatened to evict 11 tenants from the land he managed when the landowner refused to reduce these tenants' rents by a high enough percentage after a particularly poor harvest.

The community took on an organized and effective campaign to shun Boycott, with local business owners refusing to trade with him and the postal worker even refusing to deliver his mail. That first boycott was effective. Many that have followed have not been.

The Guardian has reported that while boycotts might make an initial dent in a company's sales, they rarely impact these firms for the long haul. The Guardian pointed to the 2003 U.S. boycott of French wines. Many U.S. consumers were furious with France's refusal back then to support the war in Iraq. So they decided to stop buying products from the country, including its wines.

The boycott caused a quick 26% drop in sales of French wine in the United States. That sounds impressive — but the sales drop was a blip. The Guardian quotes Larry Chavis, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who said that sales returned to their normal trajectory just six months after the boycott began, meaning that the long-term effects of it were nil.

This is an example of the type of boycott that rarely works: one without a clear goal. French wine sellers had no power to change their country’s stance on the Iraq War. The boycott, then, had little chance of forcing a change in France's policy.

What's more effective is when boycotts ask for a specific change while at the same time attacking a company's brand through social media, traditional media appearances, and large protests. In such boycotts, the actual boycotting of a company's products might have little long-term impact on sales. But the negative public relations can hurt a brand's image enough so that the company eventually makes a change to appease protesters.

The Nike Example

The Guardian cites the boycott of shoemaker Nike in the 1990s as one of the most successful. Activists heavily criticized Nike for relying on child labor, and calls for a boycott did hurt the company's sales. But the real long-term impact came from the negative hits against the company's brand image. This has forced Nike to work hard ever since to rehabilitate its image, change its labor practices, and exert greater oversight over its shoe production.

There are plenty of boycotts going on right now, with Ethical Consumer currently listing more than 65 active boycotts. There are boycotts against ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's because of its contractual relationship with an Israeli franchise that sells ice cream in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem; an ongoing boycott against oil giant BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and one against Chevron Texaco for allegedly dumping toxic waste in the Ecuadorean Amazon rain forest.

Will these boycotts accomplish their goals? The odds are against them. But there are always those boycotts that do make a difference.

Consider the recent boycott against Orlando amusement park SeaWorld. Animal welfare activists, including PETA and the Captive Animals' Protection Society, demanded that SeaWorld stop holding and displaying orca whales, saying that the captivity was harmful for these animals. In March of 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would end its orca breeding programs. The park said that it will also phase out its orca whale shows. Ethical Consumer has listed this boycott as one of the most successful.

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