• While consumer activism has been a well-established practice in the developed economies, the ubiquity of traditional and social media platforms has provided unprecedented intensity and visibility to various movements.
  • Although some primary analyses suggest that BUYcotts (passionately supporting a brand) appear to be gaining momentum against consumer boycotts, our media research showed that boycotts make headlines much more often, presenting considerable reputational risks.
  • Dolce & Gabbana, Nike, Danone, Equinox and SoulCycle were the most often mentioned brands in the recent media discussion around consumer activism, as they became targets of culturally or politically motivated campaigns.

Social scientists typically date the beginning of consumer activism to the 1700s, associating it with the free-produce movement (the boycott of goods produced by slave labour) or the Boston Tea Party (the disposal of British imports which preceded the American Revolutionary War). And while such practices have a rich history, many communications professionals think that we are at an inflection point in consumer activism today, as companies operate in an increasingly public environment.

For example, between 1990 and 2007, only 213 boycotts were mentioned in the six largest US newspapers, according to Fortune, while the widely publicised anti-Trump #GrabYourWallet campaign alone has launched more than 50 boycotts for less than a year. The movement began in the wake of the 2016 election and engulfed organisations which had something to do with the President – for example, fitness companies SoulCycle and Equinox were targeted when the Washington Post reported that one of its investors, Stephen Ross, was hosting a fundraising effort for Trump’s re-election campaign.

The #GrabYourWallet coordinators Shannon Coulter and Sue Atencio compiled a spreadsheet of companies which have had some relationship with Trump or his family, including AT&T, BP, Bank of America, Shell and Louis Vuitton. Coulter told the New York Times that “the goal came originally from a place of really wanting to shop the stores we loved again with a clear conscience.”

When Ivanka Trump announced she was shuttering her fashion line last year, several news outlets including Glamour, Elle, and Bloomberg credited #GrabYourWallet as a consumer power tour de force. Since then, the movement has been frequently featured in many prominent media publications, such as The New York Times, Vogue, Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC, Cosmopolitan and CNN. Some outlets like AP News even maintain a feed to track boycotts globally.

The political consumer

Some commentators explain this groundswell of new consumer activism with the growing popularity of political activism in general: according to a recent poll by the Washington Post, one in five Americans has participated in some form of political rally since 2016, and nearly 20% of those expressed that kind of activism for the first time. This goes hand-in-hand with the crisis of trust in public institutions: in Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer, 57% of respondents stated that the overall system has failed them.

According to some researchers, consumer activism has become the most common form of political action in the United States aside from voting, with more and more US shoppers starting to understand their purchasing power not just only in economic terms but also as an enactment of practical ethics.

Consumer boycotts usually stem from anger, the emotion that spreads faster and farther on social media than any other, as per a study conducted by Beihang University. The spread of anger often results in outrage cascades — outbursts of moral judgment which start to drive the conversation around brands, their products and their corporate messages. The virality of moral judgements is facilitated by the fact that most of the content on social media feeds and timelines is sorted according to its likelihood to generate engagement.

A recent NYU research found a pattern in viral posts: the presence of morally charged and strong emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word. This content acts as a trigger for emotional reactions and tends to divide users into two opposing camps. Such polarisation guarantees engagement: users who strongly agree or strongly disagree with a certain message are more likely to comment on it or share it.

The crises in social media often serve as coverage drivers in traditional media – an increasing number of outlets report on heated discussions on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, so a debate on social media quickly turns into a debate on traditional media. Articles are usually being extensively shared throughout social media, perpetuating the discussion and creating a direct correlation between the volume of traditional media coverage and the level of social media engagement.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “The Anatomy of a Social Media Crisis: Lessons from the Fashion and Food Industries”.

Boycotts vs BUYcotts

Apart from boycotting, consumer activism can take the shape of buying en masse to support a certain brand’s products or corporate messaging – a practice which some PR professionals call BUYcotts. This practice is also commonly referred to as “conscious consumerism”, particularly when it involves supporting issues such as sustainability.

Conscious consumerism gained momentum this year thanks to the new wave of activism spearheaded by the efforts of young influencers such as Greta Thunberg, which made many companies take a more active part in the climate change debate by communicating corporate social responsibility.

The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist managed to dominate headlines and social media feeds all around the world, sparking off a heated discussion around climate change by conveying uncompromisingly forthright messages which caught the attention of journalists, politicians and business leaders. As her passionate rhetoric was met with both praise and criticism by global media outlets and social media users, several industries, including tech, fashion, aviation and Big Oil, took centre stage in the discussion.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “The Greta Thunberg Effect: Can Climate Activism Influence Corporate Behaviour?”

In line with the popularity of conscious consumerism, a recent research by Weber Shandwick uncovered a striking trend: BUYcotts are on the rise and appear to be gaining momentum to overtake the prevalence of boycotts, with 83% of consumer activists agreeing that it is more important than ever to show support for companies by buying from them vs. participating in boycotts (59%).

Weber Shandwick related this finding to a growing body of research suggesting that boycotts have questionable success rates. There is also little evidence to suggest that boycotts impact revenues of targeted companies. Many critics point out that individual product swaps do nothing to impact legislation and corporate responsibility. For example, Amazon repeatedly manages to smash its sales record despite years of calls to boycott it over its labour conditions.

Activism and corporate reputation

But although BUYcotts are on the rise, boycotts can still significantly hurt a business’ reputation even if they don’t have an immediate impact on earnings. Empirical analysis demonstrates that protests are more influential when generating greater media coverage.

While Weber Shandwick‘s primary research found that BUYcotts appear to be gaining momentum to overtake the prevalence of boycotts, our media research showed that boycotts make headlines much more often than BUYcotts, presenting considerable reputational risks.

Analysing the media conversation around consumer activism from October 2018 to November 2019, we found that the most often mentioned brands were Dolce & Gabbana, Nike, Danone, Equinox and SoulCycle, all of which were targets of massive activist campaigns for a variety of reasons.

For instance, the backlash against Dolce & Gabbana and Nike was motivated by socio-cultural issues related to race and identity, Danone was in the spotlight due to the economic conditions in Marocco, while Equinox and SoulCycle suffered because of their ties with Trump, which allegedly contradicted their corporate messaging on inclusiveness and diversity.

The most widely covered backlash in our sample was centred around Dolce & Gabbana‘s advertising campaign in China which was declared “racist”. The ads, which were intended to spark interest in a Shanghai fashion show, featured a Chinese woman struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks.

The racism allegations were fostered by the circulation of screenshots of a private Instagram conversation, in which Stefano Gabbana makes a reference to “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” and describes the country with a smiling poo emoji. The company said the designer’s account had been hacked.

The debate originated on Chinese platform Weibo but quickly moved to Twitter where it ultimately escalated. Dolce & Gabbana had to cancel its Shanghai show after dozens of celebrities pulled out. Analysing the Twitter conversation around the brand, we found that messages relating to the controversy had a significant reach, which contributed to the large volume of traditional media coverage.

The backlash was amplified by Chinese film star Zhang Ziyi, who said she and her team “will not buy or use” any Dolce & Gabbana product, while singer Wang Junkai said he had terminated an agreement to be the brand’s ambassador. Online retailers such as Alibaba’s TMall and JD.com Inc. removed Dolce & Gabbana’s products from their Chinese sites, and Lane Crawford and other high-end luxury stores pulled the brand’s wares.

Influential fashion outlets like Vogue China featured no Dolce & Gabanna ads, and at the Golden Globes and the Oscars, no A-list celebrities wore the label. These moves were welcomed by many Twitter users, who claimed that the brand deserves the boycott and that China has taught a lesson to “a racist establishment”.

Fashion brands have long strived to provoke with controversial marketing campaigns, especially in China, the country expected to drive most of the industry’s growth. Chinese consumers account for around a third of global purchases of luxury products, according to Bain & Co. Dolce & Gabanna might lose their share in an important market, where rivals such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci are vying to expand.

The brand’s crisis communications were not successful and even worsened its image. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna tried to get personal and issued a video apology to Chinese consumers on social media, saying that they hope their misunderstanding of Chinese culture can be forgiven. They also posted “dui bu qi,” which means “I’m sorry” in Chinese. Social media users largely interpreted this as insincere, with some even saying that the designers’ body language gave them away, while others asserted that the brand is only apologising for the money it will lose.

Nike’s marketing effort, part of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign, involved former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had participated in racial justice demonstrations during national anthem ceremonies. The campaign’s results were polarising, with consumers divided between praise and calls for boycotting the brand. Although Nike‘s messaging resulted in calls for both boycotts and BUYcotts, the appeals “Boycott Nike!” and “#BurnYourNikes!” echoed farther.

The enduring role of consumer boycotts was particularly highlighted in Danone‘s struggles in Marocco: a social media campaign successfully urged shoppers not to buy Danone-branded products as a protest against the company’s high prices. Within weeks, Centrale Danone, Danone’s Morocco-based subsidiary, lost 40% of its sales and suffered a net loss of €13.5 million in the first half of 2018.

A paper published by Aljazeera Centre for Studies probed into Morocco’s boycott movement and the nuances of its slogan “Let it Spoil” by building on social movements theory, suggesting that it can be seen as an outcry of the Moroccan middle class that perceives its status and interests as being manipulated by “greedy” political and economic elite.

In contrast, Equinox and SoulCycle were targets of a celebrity- and activist-fueled boycott. The news of their investor’s Trump fundraiser incensed many LGBTQ people, whom the fitness brands have been traditionally targeting with their marketing.

SoulCycle and Equinox made a classic crisis communications mistake by trying to distance themselves from the problem instead of communicating corporate responsibility and concern for consumer well-being. The brands tried to present Ross as a passive investor who isn’t involved in their management, but that didn’t sound convincing, especially given the fact that they have been positioning themselves as champions of inclusivity.

This dissonance was quickly picked up by social media users, with the natural reaction being: “Even if he’s a passive investor, why do you take money from someone who seems to oppose your values?”. As ever, the story goes to show that the attempt to detach a brand from a slip-up usually backfires and the brand ends up even more deeply involved in the accident.

In the meantime, consumer activist Ralph Nader called for consumers to boycott Boeing, the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer, which is in the midst of a swelling PR crisis after the Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019. The fatal accidents involved the same jet model, the Boeing’s best-selling 737 MAX, which has been a central business driver since the company introduced it in 2017 as “a reliable fuel- and cost-efficient solution to air travel in the 21st century”.

After the news of the second crash broke, national regulators and airlines around the world were quick to ground the 737 MAX. Their decision wasn’t based on hard technical evidence, as the investigation into the incidents is still ongoing, but rather on a loss of trust in the brand – something which Boeing has to restore now. And while the short-term cost of fixing the jet would probably be manageable for the aerospace giant, fixing the company’s image could take much more resources and time.

Boeings crisis management was additionally undermined by the insistence that its product was safe, which was hardly a well-formulated message at a time when the media was preoccupied with analysing the two crashes and the similarities between them. From a strategic point of view, such defensive behaviour is negatively linked to the post-recall brand image because it often communicates a lack of corporate responsibility and sincerity.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Boeing’s Ethiopian Crash: A Study in Bad Crisis Management”.

Boeing was also mentioned in relation to the #flightshaming movement which was promoted by Greta Thunberg and which is beginning to make investors in the aviation industry nervous. The most powerful coverage driver in this regard was Greta’s decision to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines, which was presented as a carbon-neutral transatlantic crossing.

Swiss bank UBS predicted that the flight-shaming campaign could halve growth in air traffic in the decades to come. The bank’s figures suggested that high-profile campaigns like Greta’s could trigger a change in flying habits in wealthier parts of the world, which could mean that companies like Airbus and Boeing may need to build 110 fewer smaller planes every year.

Victoria’s Secret, on the other hand, is an example of how calls for consumer boycott could be provoked by culturally irrelevant marketing strategies. The largest lingerie retailer in the US, has been one of the most iconic apparel brands since the 1990s, not least because its sexually charged imaging set the industry’s standard for decades and exerted a strong influence on body image norms. But since 2015, the shares of its parent company L Brands have been dropping as sales keep taking hits from shifting consumer tastes, executive turnovers and emerging competition.

The Victoria’s Secret brand, built on skinny girls and scantily clad lingerie, is now largely perceived as inadequate for a time when consumers’ preferences have moved away from sex appeal and towards empowerment, inclusiveness and comfort. To many, the brand’s traditional marketing strategy, which bets on fashion shows where supermodels walk in stiletto heels and angel wings, seems tone-deaf in the era of #MeToo, which condemns all forms of objectifying women and imposing hard-to-achieve beauty standards.

In the meantime, some brands have used the deepening levels of polarisation across social network groups to their advantage. For example, Procter & Gamble’s Gillette focused one of its latest ads on the #MeToo movement, bullying and “toxic” masculinity, sparking an intense discussion and securing more than 2 million views in just 48 hours. The campaign’s success demonstrated that brands should become more and more confident about value-based marketing and more willing to take the risk of addressing controversial issues.

To learn all about Gillette’s strategy, take a look at our analysis: “Gillette Ad Controversy: Social Media Insights”.