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 economic and educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans. As he announced Goya’s involvement, Unanue praised president Trump’s leadership, commenting that the country was “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 with hashtags #goyaway and #boycottgoya, with accompanying media coverage.
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 company 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 something of a draw. The fact is that most boycotts fizzle out. 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 to a movement that’s 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.