The first highly publicized boycott of a brand occurred 50 years ago when more than 14 million Americans boycotted Delano grapes. It was the result of Cesar Chavez and the organization known today as the United Farm Workers of America leading Filipino farm workers in California to walk off the job in protest of receiving less than the federal minimum wage.
Consumer activism continues to be a powerful tool for change, and engaged citizens are boycotting brands more than ever. According to Fortune, between 1990 and 2007, the six biggest U.S. newspapers made mention of just over 200 boycotts. In the connected age, impassioned citizens have taken to social media to campaign against (and for) causes that may not have gained as much exposure a decade ago. Take, for example, the 2017 #GrabYourWallet campaign, which led to boycotts of more than 50 companies in just a few months.
But what if a brand being boycotted is one you revere? Or what if, from a business standpoint, a boycotted brand has partnered with your company to sponsor a property, program or event to raise money, elevate issues or solve problems that matter to you and your audience? Will partnering with that brand have an impact on your brand?
When evaluating your business’ association with a boycotted brand, here are some key considerations:
Why did you partner with this brand in the first place?
There are many lucrative reasons to partner with a brand. In addition to financial and in-kind support, have you clearly identified your goals for a partnership? Are you partnering with brands you respect and whose business practices align with your own? Has your leadership determined which brands share the organization’s values? Are they prepared to defend those decisions when a partner brand is embroiled in a boycott?
Of course, not every brand is for everybody. Some are polarizing. A nonprofit economic development agency I worked with received funding from Walmart to support programs for small businesses. Some members of the staff objected; they believed big box stores put mom and pop shops out of business. Others believed the funding enabled the agency to serve more people who may not have otherwise had the resources to launch or grow their small business. Ultimately, the board and executive director approved the partnership and stood by the decision.
The bottom line: If you are clear about what your organization stands for, the brands you are willing to stand up for will also be clear.
How does this brand handle a crisis?
A sponsor might be perfectly aligned with your company values and something may occur that changes the public’s perception of that brand. Have you researched the circumstances surrounding the boycott thoroughly and done your due diligence? Did the brand acknowledge the issue right away and communicate openly with stakeholders? Is it being transparent? Is it taking responsibility and providing details about how the company intends to address it?
It’s important to assess the situation based on facts. What happens immediately after the incident is critical. Pay attention to how the company’s CEO handles it. United Airlines initially stood by the forceful removal of a passenger in 2017. The CEO later issued a weak apology, which infuriated the public. After significant backlash and boycotts, he issued a second statement saying, “We are going to fix what is broken so it never happens again.” But it came too late and resulted in customer perception dropping to an all-time low.
The bottom line: Carefully consider whether the situation is being handled in a way that aligns with how you do (or want to do) business.
What is your company’s tipping point?
No brand is perfect. Companies are led and run by people, and people make mistakes. Has your leadership team engaged in dialogue about specific behaviors, issues or business practices your company is not willing to overlook? What is it that a brand or brand spokesperson could do that would result in ending the relationship? Would you be willing to address the situation directly with your brand partner?
Last month, the University of Washington ended a 20-year partnership with Nike. A week later a New York Times article about Nike brought to light how toxic the culture of the company had become for women. While the university isn’t sharing whether Nike’s business practices had anything to do with its decision, many other organizations are drawing the line at partnering with a company that has a history of mistreating its female workers.
The bottom line: Identifying what your boundaries are will enable you to identify when they’ve been crossed and when it’s time to take action.
What do you stand to lose?
When done right, sponsorships offer unique marketing opportunities and provide significant and often essential support for properties, programs and events. Have you weighed the pros of cutting ties with a brand that has been a valuable partner? Do you fully understand what you have to lose by ending the partnership? Are you certain that aligning with a brand on a divisive issue is worth the risk?
As broadcast media marketer, I worked with hundreds of big brands that made amazing events possible because sponsorship was a key ingredient in their marketing mix. I was on the team that launched the Basilica Block Party more than two decades ago as a fundraiser for Minneapolis’ Basilica of Saint Mary. Sponsors like Coca-Cola not only made the music event possible, they were instrumental in taking it to the next level. To date, the block party has raised more than $5 million for the Basilica’s structural restoration and programs. Without its partners, the event simply would not have gotten off the ground.
The bottom line: After all is said and done, when partnering with a boycotted brand, you’ve got to decide if the rewards outweigh the potential risks.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.