Thursday 8 October 2020 5:53 am

Welcome to the Age of Boycotts, where controversy can be a brand’s best friend

Alberto Lopez Valenzuela is founder and chief executive of alva, the reputation intelligence company.

This summer’s hectic news agenda made corporate boycotts the latest hot fashion accessory — and it’s not a trend that looks likely to die any time soon.

But rather than panicking and getting ready to fold to the demands of the online (and offline) mob, companies should reframe the risk of being subject to a boycott as an opportunity.

June and July 2020 — or the summer of the Boycott as it ought to be known — saw a threefold increase in the volume of social media content calling for companies to be boycotted. 

Read more: FTSE 100 flat after Donald Trump ends US stimulus talks

As Alva’s report Boycotts in the Covid-19 era: Are these now a reputational opportunity? shows, the issues causing boycotts have been broad and varied. Examples range from Twitter and Facebook’s glacial responses to the antisemitism and hate speech published on their platforms, to the chief executive of Goya Foods offering a positive appraisal of President Trump, through to Starbucks’ support for the Seattle Police Department, and Chick-fil-A’s continued championng of anti-LGBTQ causes.

And it’s continuing well into autumn — just this week, maverick actor Laurence Fox announced he was boycotting Sainsbury’s due to the supermarket’s celebration of Black History Month.

The boycotters come from left and right, old and young, from all across the world.

It’s enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident brands. Perhaps the best strategy in these volatile times is to play it safe and avoid upsetting anyone, lest they choose to spurn your brand?

But equivocating and triangulating will only get you so far. 

To take an example deeply relevant to all UK shoppers, the government’s directive for customers to wear face coverings in shops generated praise in some quarters and consternation in others, putting retailers in a difficult position. Major supermarkets — including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda — were threatened with boycotts on social media both for brand messaging that supported the government policy, and, from the other side, for stating that supermarket staff would not enforce the ruling directly themselves, thus angering the pro-maskers.

Looking down the list of causes behind boycotts in July, we see criticism of social networks Twitter and Facebook for being too slow to deal with hate speech, while at the same time being lambasted for preventing free speech by removing that same content. 

Nike earned plaudits in some quarters for its support of the Black Lives Matter protests, but was on the receiving end of a boycott campaign for this very same initiative. Likewise, Tesco and Yorkshire Tea’s progressive stances on diversity and inclusion were met with declarations from some angry social media users that they would shop elsewhere.

The more you look into the Summer of the Boycott, the more you see the need for a fundamental change in how companies engage with their detractors. It appears almost impossible to keep everyone happy, and a boycott movement can spark from what might seem the smallest and most unexpected on infractions.

But boycotts need not be entirely negative experiences for corporates and brands.

Take Goya Foods as an example. The firm hit the headlines and was targeted by outraged activists after chief executive Robert Unanue appeared in the White House Rose Garden and praised Donald Trump. But as people took to social media to drum up support for a boycott of Goya Foods’ products, an equally vigorous buy-cott of Goya products from supporters of Unanue and President Trump quickly followed. So did crowdfunded campaigns to purchase the company’s products to donate them to food banks.

The received wisdom for brands is that the customer is always right. But in an increasingly polarised world, with consumers being whipped up into frenzies by a controversy-driven news cycle, it may be a smarter business move to actively embrace consumer action against your brand as a way to position the company and its beliefs — to  walk the talk on what it really stands for.

As we see firms increasingly attempt to adopt positions on a variety of social issues, from diversity and inclusion to climate change and gun control, thinking hard about how to handle detractors is an imperative. 

When someone takes them on, they should be ready to defend their position — and they should be confident that any revenue hit is highly likely to be short-term and minor, as long as their position is well-argued and consistent.

Part of being human is to exist alongside people with whom we disagree. Your favourite uncle might not reflect your views on LGBTQ+ rights. Your daughter may despite your Brexit position. The friends you met at university might be very different to the ones you grew up with. You don’t win their respect and keep their affection by just caving at the first sign of opposition, nor by violently batting criticism away, but rather by a well-measured defence of your views, mixed with an acknowledgement that we can agree to disagree, and still get on just fine.

Where could this trend end? I for one expect firms to become ever braver in occupying more controversial positions. This won’t necessarily be done in order to attract boycotts per se, but because they will see conversation and debate around their position as crucial to relationships with customers, and society as a whole.

A hotly-fought US presidential election is likely to be just the opportunity many brands need to join debates, knowing that disagreement should be welcomed, rather than feared.  

Read more: Facebook removes Trump post claiming flu is more deadly than Covid-19

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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