In the era of Trump, U.S. companies face boycotts reflecting deep divisions of American society.
Starbucks promises to hire 10,000 refugees? President Donald Trump’s supporters call for a boycott. Uber allegedly takes advantage of the president’s anti-immigration decree to drum up business? Users unsubscribe from the app en masse.
Trump’s election has laid bare the deep divisions of American society, a discord that has forced many businesses to walk a fine line to avoid alienating consumers. “Companies that were working very hard to stay neutral no longer can,” says brand expert Bruce Turkel. “The biggest problem is anything they say can be misinterpreted.”
Sportswear manufacturer New Balance, for instance, found itself embroiled in controversy after its CEO Matt LeBretton voiced optimism following the election. “We feel things are going to move in the right direction,” he said in an interview, prompting outrage on Twitter, where users called for a massive boycott of the sneaker company, forcing the brand into damage control. “From the people who make our shoes to the people who wear them, we believe in acting with the utmost integrity and we welcome all walks of life,” the company said.
Beverage giant PepsiCo faced similar backlash from the opposite camp. Two days after the election, the company’s CEO Indra Nooyi said her employees “were all in mourning.”
“And the question that they’re asking, especially those who are not white: Are we safe?” she said. The retaliation came instantly: “It’s probably a good time to pass on the Pepsi products,” the conservative site The Gateway Pundit wrote.
Calls for boycotts often proliferate on Internet forums such as Reddit and 4Chan, as well as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Others originate from more structured protests. The Grab Your Wallet site, launched in October, lists companies suspected of favoring Trump, either because their leaders contributed to the real estate billionaire’s campaign or because they do business with the Trump family.
The long “boycott” list includes the department store Macy’s, retail giant Walmart and beer brand Yuengling. “Brands have always been political, but now consumers can see more of this activity and are making decisions based on this information,” the site’s cofounder Shannon Coulter says.
The impact of boycott campaigns is difficult to evaluate, however, because calls to blacklist specific companies tend to get lost in the frenzy of social media. “Consumers have an incredibly short memory,” marketing expert Merry Carole Powers says.
Still, some companies fear losing customers by staying silent. Nordstrom, a chain of department stores, recently announced it would drop the Ivanka Trump clothing line belonging to the president’s eldest daughter. “There’s no margin in the middle,” says Turkel, who recently wrote the book All About Them, focused on company branding. “If you stay quiet, you get nothing out of it. You have to figure out who your audience is and what are their values.”
Uber appears to be playing by ear as it devises its strategy. The company first distanced itself from Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
But it then came under fire for allegedly taking advantage of a New York taxi driver protest against the ban, prompting a wave of unsubscriptions. As taxi drivers went on strike refusing to pick up passengers at JFK airport, Uber not only continued to operate but also dropped its surge pricing.
Rival Lyft was quick to set itself apart, vowing to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed lawsuits against Trump’s measures. The strategy paid off with the Lyft app notching more iPhone downloads than Uber for the first time.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick then attempted to make amends by quitting Trump’s business advisory group, saying “the executive order is hurting many people in communities all across America.” And with the approach of the Super Bowl—one of the advertising world’s central events—every marketing move is facing microscopic scrutiny.
The beer giant Budweiser is slated to air an immigration-themed advertisement focused on the difficulties the brand’s German founder faced when he arrived in the United States in the 19th century. South of the border, consumer trends are less divided.
In Mexico, the campaign “Consumers, the cry of war” is urging people to boycott all American brands in protest against Trump’s anti-Mexican threats.