Goya And The Art Of The Brand Boycott

The consumer boycott is a time-honored tactic for those who seek to force political or social change. But do boycotts ever work?

Consider the recent backlash dished out to Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue after Unanue participated in a White House roundtable on opportunities for Hispanic Americans. As he announced Goya’s involvement, Unanue praised president Trump’s leadership. He observed that the country is “truly blessed […] to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder.” Unanue went on to compare the president to his immigrant grandfather who had founded the company he now runs.

The reaction to Unanue’s words among many Hispanics was predictable and swift. Boldfaced names from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez to Lin-Manual Miranda tweeted in support of a boycott. They used hashtags #goyaway and #boycottgoya, with accompanying media coverage.

The hits kept coming. The Hispanic Federation released a statement criticizing Unanue’s comments in light of the president’s track record and rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants. To many boycotters, the CEO’s words were simply at odds with the values and well being of its core customers.

When a boycott sparks a buycott

Yet, just as quickly, Goya’s proponents pushed back with a grassroots tactic of their own. Many tweeted urging a #buycott of its products, with one notable GoFundMe raising over $300,000 to buy Goya foods for donation to the needy. The president’s daughter famously got into the fray, and just like that, black beans become a political statement.

One irony of the situation was that Unanue was at the White House to announce Goya’s donation of a million cans of chickpeas and another million pounds of goods to food banks – a part of its admirable history of charitable contributions that was lost in the sauce of mutual recrimination.

Goya was clearly unprepared for the fuss, as its handling of a friendly phone interview with The Wall Street Journal showed.

Through all of this, I can sense the PR woman fret, and I hear a scolding administered to Mr. Unanue in the background. The communications team’s risk-aversion becomes even more evident after the interview is over, when Mr. Trump and his daughter Ivanka tweet photos of themselves posing with Goya products. I email Mr. Unanue on Thursday asking for comment on the endorsement, and he responds with an expression of gratitude to the first family.

An hour later I receive an email from a different PR woman: “We’d like to retract and edit that quote immediately. Please see below for the approved quote.” The approved quote makes no mention of Donald or Ivanka Trump. Two more hours go by and I get yet another email from PR, retracting the reworked quote altogether.

Never say those PR reps don’t earn their salaries.

Brand boycotts rarely succeed

So, who’s winning the PR war here? Between the pro-boycott noise and the #buycott clapback, the Goya situation may be a draw. The fact is that most boycotts fizzle. And experts say they don’t usually harm the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted. Barely a quarter of them result in desired change.

Yet the goal of a boycott should be in the media coverage and brand reputation harm (or benefit) it generates. A study by Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King shows that. A successful boycott isn’t about lost sales or financial pressure. It’s about negative media headlines that persist. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King.

A clash with brand values can stick

In my view, the bad PR is effective when it runs counter to a corporation’s character or values. After Stephen Ross, majority owner of Equinox and SoulCycle, hosted a Trump fundraiser last summer, both brands were targets of a celebrity-led boycott. A data analytics company that tracked SoulCycle signups concluded that its business slumped in the weeks following the controversy.

What made the difference? Brand image, for one. As “lifestyle” brands with large LGBT followings, Equinox and SoulCycle count on being status symbols – or at least they did in pre-COVID days. The brands also convey social responsibility commitment in their marketing, sponsoring progressive and LGBT events, so the fundraiser made them seem hypocritical at best.

By that logic, the Goya brand controversy will simmer on, because the food fight isn’t over. The Trump campaign has seized on the boycott as a proxy for the latest culture war, producing Spanish-language broadcast ads that highlight the “shameful smear campaign” against Goya in Florida.

It’s a canny move. If the president and his advocates can link the Goya controversy to cancel culture and intolerance among progressives, they can win. If, on the other hand, Goya’s critics align it with the administration’s anti-immigration policies and racist attitudes to paint the CEO as hypocritical or callous, they will have elevated the boycott above partisan politics.

As Americus Reed of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School writes, “If the boycott reflects a movement — rather than a moment — it can change the world around it.” Stay tuned.

Why Most Boycotts Fail But Others Win

When is a boycott more than just PR? What makes it work?

Recent reports of a slowdown in SoulCycle’s business made me wonder about the staying power of customer boycotts. Why do most fade while others gain traction and even force change? If you missed it, famous SoulCycle fans were outraged when billionaire Stephen Ross, who owns both SoulCycle and Equinox, among other companies, hosted a high-dollar Hamptons fundraiser for Donald Trump on August 8th.

Led by Chrissy Teigen and other celebrities, Twitter erupted against the brands. Rival fitness companies lunged at the chance to pummel them. Crunch Gym launched a Summer Break-Up promotion, and some less luxe gyms ran snarky ads tweaking their tony, Instagram-ready image.

Like most brand-watchers, I expected the boycott to fizzle like a summer fling, but I was wrong, apparently. Data analytics company Earnest Research accessed SoulCycle’s August signups and compared them with those of a year ago. Even adjusted for a seasonal dip, SoulCycle showed a marked slump in class attendance. Average enrollment dropped a whopping 12.8 percent across all U.S. locations, compared with a “normal” five percent dip in August in a typical year. That’s unusual.

Why Most Consumer Boycotts Fail

Well-organized corporate activism, like the 2017 campaign to pull sports and business events from North Carolina after its “bathroom bill,” can be very powerful. Backed by the NCAA and high-spending corporations, the bathroom bill boycott hit the state in its wallet, and it worked. But consumer boycotts are a dime a dozen today. Experts say most don’t hurt the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted, and barely a quarter of boycotts result in desired change.

So, what makes the difference? Why is SoulCycle feeling the burn? It may be because it and Equinox are lifestyle brands. SoulCycle adherents in particular enjoy strong social bonds and bragging rights that were dampened by the Ross fundraiser coverage. Who wants to Instagram their workout now? Most importantly, both SoulCycle and Equinox convey their social responsibility in their marketing, with sponsorships and positioning that embrace diversity and LGBTQ rights. So, the behavior of their corporate owner can seem flabby and hypocritical to members.

That’s the risk, and the irony, of corporate social responsibility. If a brand spends to build a reputation as a social advocate, it stands to lose more than if it had never invested. According to Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King, who studied activist targeting of major companies, “Building a strong reputation as a socially responsible firm creates certain expectations, making incongruent behavior more noticeable and damaging to the firm’s image.” That’s logical, and it’s why some brands approach any kind of advocacy with caution.

The study also shows that the key to a successful boycott – if success is defined as desired change – isn’t financial pressure. It’s – wait for it – negative media headlines. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King. The bad PR is typically most effective when it targets a high-profile company, because reputation damage is perceived as notably harmful over the long term.

The SoulCycle and Equinox boycotts may run out of steam as time passes. Yet the short-term success offers a lesson about social activism and PR. It’s about making it a story, and refreshing that story when the initial news cycle is over.  To succeed, a social action must be orchestrated to create press coverage and social media noise above all. For major brands, reputation damage may be more important and more effective even than damage to the bottom line.

Public Relations And The Boycott Culture

Software community Mozilla lost its CEO recently, due to poor PR handling of a red-hot issue, or because said CEO was railroaded for unpopular views. Perhaps both. But, contrast the Mozilla mess with the sugar-coated response by a humble graham cracker to critics of its message about marriage. Each says something about the power of PR-driven “boycotts” and how companies should respond.

Things heated up for Mozilla when news broke that in 2008, cofounder and newly installed CEO Brendan Eich had donated $1,000 to support Prop 8, the controversial measure to ban same-sex marriage in California.

The flames were fanned when dating service OkCupid led a Mozilla boycott, even blocking the browser from its website. (This is ironic, given that OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan donated to at least two congressional candidates opposed to marriage equality.) But there was no love lost once Mozilla’s own employees jumped into the fray, and the controversy culminated in Eich’s resignation, leaving pundits to ponder whether Silicon Valley is enlightened or just hypocritical.

It’s not perfectly equivalent, but consider the example set by Honey Maid, the graham cracker brand, when it was faced with a boycott by opponents of marriage equality. Honey Maid debuted a commercial themed, “This Is Wholesome,” featuring different kinds of families, including – of course – biracial and gay couples and their adorable children. A page from the Cheerios playbook, yes.

Almost immediately, the online comments were toxic. The conservative group One Million Moms (which has considerably less than a million members, as Ellen will tell you) called for Christians to reject Honey Maid, describing the spot as “an attempt to normalize sin.”

Ouch. Now, being on the “correct” (read: inclusive) side of the issue made Honey Maid’s dilemma arguably easier to manage than Mozilla’s. And internet trolls are overlooked more readily than employees or partners. Plus, the brand had to know that it would attract those trolls, based on the Cheerios experience. They were probably prepared.

But any type of boycott brings real risks to brand reputation and possibly to the business itself. Plenty of companies have been caught in the now-familiar “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” cycle of not wanting to anger any constituency. Remember Chick Fil-A’s roasting over its CEO’s views? It probably didn’t hurt the chain’s business; in fact, you could argue it marketed to its core customers, but it was a huge distraction. Or Lowe’s sponsorship of a reality show about American Muslims? The chain pulled its ads when criticized by a fringe group, only to enrage those who saw the move as promoting intolerance.

We live in a boycott culture. Bloggers and journalists are quick to cover controversy. Social media can turn a brushfire into an inferno in an hour.

The lesson here is: stick to your guns, but with a soft touch. Honey Maid’s response to the ugly protests against its ad was wonderful. It basically killed off its critics with kindness, releasing a second spot where two artists arrange all the negative comments, printed on rolled-up paper, into a kind of sculpture that spells out “Love.” The response was all the sweeter because of the old-fashioned, Midwestern flavor of its brand character. (Never mind that it’s part of Mondelez International.)

Honey Maid’s Love Sculpture has garnered millions of free views, lots of water-cooler chat, and buckets of major media coverage, capped off with a New Yorker piece about the brilliance of its marketing response.

Responding to public criticism or the threat of a boycott is never simple, but Honey Maid made it seem almost easy. There’s a lesson here for other brands and businesses. Sometimes, all you need is love.

When Bad PR Is Good For Business

Boycotts are powerful, but they can also be PR magnets, drawing attention where none is deserved.

That seems to be the case with the attempts to pressure Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, to drop one of its sellers. Etsy is known not only for the business opportunities it provides to artist-entrepreneurs, but for its strong community and a culture that celebrates one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and creative expression.

But an Etsy boycott started to gather steam late last year over a specific member of that lovely, artsy community, a company called youstupidbitch.com. Not the typical Etsy craft-preneur, is it? This seller features hand-drawn greeting cards that mock such serious and sensitive conditions as rape, Down syndrome, cancer, and AIDS.

It’s honestly hard to imagine anyone having a use for the cards, and I don’t blame the mommy bloggers, advocates, artists and others who’ve expressed outrage over the merchandise. They’re right to be repelled by the messages.

And it baffles me that Etsy has been unresponsive to the complaints, even deleting all Facebook posts about the issue, no matter how respectful. The vendor’s very presence, and Etsy’s head-in-the-sand handling of the complaints, seem utterly antithetical to its culture and community standards. Check out Shel Holtz’s post for an analysis of the non-response. It’s also been a PR black eye. The buzz trickled up to the major media, resulting in a CNN report by an admittedly over-the-top Jane Velez Mitchell.

But what bothers me more is that the furor over the obnoxious cards has been good for business, or so it seems. Before October, when anger over the cards’ content began to build, the seller reported sales of exactly zero. Today, it’s showing 89 cards sold, most over the past couple of weeks. Now, I know 89 cards isn’t much, but the whole controversy reminds me of the Amazon.com pedophile book uproar, which turned a disgusting, self-published “guide” for child molesters to best-seller status among e-books. Ugh.

The Amazon situation, at least, was important as a precedent, because public pressure forced it to take responsibility for its merchandise. The learning there was that a private company, unlike the government, can choose its own vendors and enforce its own Terms of Service. That’s not censorship, it’s just good business. And, the protest worked. It took Amazon a single day to reverse its position and drop the book in question. But I still have trouble with the fact that the PR hoopla put money in a pervert’s pocket.

It’s easy to jump online to organize a movement in the heat of the moment. It feels good to vent online, or call the media, but I think we’ve become too quick to marshall our social and economic clout (and Klout.) There are times when a movement or boycott is misplaced, and I think this is one of them. Here’s why: Etsy’s situation is different from Amazon’s; the cards are tasteless, but they don’t condone or promote an illegal act. Second, Etsy isn’t a retailer, it’s a marketplace; its storefronts are separate businesses. Finally, a truly successful boycott would just hurt other Etsy sellers, while giving the card vendor buckets of publicity.

Maybe it’s boycott fatigue, but I’ve become a proponent of what I’m calling the “ignore-cott.” Here’s what I wish concerned citizens and influencers would do when confronted with an obnoxious or tasteless product. Don’t call a press conference, put up a Facebook page, or tweet to thousands of followers. Instead, express your opinion to the business in question. Tell them you will never use their products. Then, don’t. End of story.