Consumer boycotts have become a frequently deployed weapon of political activism, but one question still looms large: Do they even work?
First daughter Ivanka Trump’s eponymous Ivanka fashion brand is a case in point. The Ivanka brand was rocked by bad news in January following a months-long boycott spearheaded by the organization Grab Your Wallet, which targets companies affiliated with the Trump family. However, if the news circulating widely this month is accurate, Ivanka saw a spectacular turnaround in February.
February’s reportedly strong numbers indicate that the Grab Your Wallet boycott was a smashing failure. However, on closer examination, the picture is much more complicated.
Ethics and boycotts
One significant issue that has muddied the Ivanka boycott picture is the appearance of unethical behavior on the part of Ivanka Trump’s supporters in the Donald Trump administration.
The Ivanka line became the focus of unflattering news in January when reports surfaced that major retailers Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom were among companies dropping or pulling back on the brand.
“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” he tweeted.
To many that unusual deployment of the White House bully pulpit breached historical norms for presidential behavior, but it was not widely viewed as a definitive violation of federal rules governing abuse of authority.
What did set legal ears twitching was a television appearance by top advisor Kellyanne Conway the following day, during which she issued a personal endorsement of the Ivanka brand (cited by The Washington Post):
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you,” Conway said. “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody.”
That’s when sales apparently took off. Numerous news organizations have cited figures compiled by the online shopping aggregator Lyst:
“According to Lyst, February drew unusually large numbers of orders across many Ivanka Trump-branded products, including dresses, shoes, pants, coats, knitwear and tops. Heels were the bestsellers, followed by dresses,” the Post reported.
Unfortunately for Conway, the “free commercial” skirted a federal ethics rule that broadly prohibits federal employees from using their position to endorse products:
“An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
The Trump administration took no formal action against Conway, but a group of lawyers filed an ethics complaint against her.
The ripple effects may also ensnare other White House officials. When the Office of Government Ethics pressed for stronger discipline, it received a response indicating that the president’s counsel has rejected its authority over White House staff.
OGE head Walter Shaub fired back, hinting that a legal showdown is in store if the White House stands by that view:
“Presidential administrations have not considered it appropriate to challenge the applicability of ethics rules to the entire executive branch,” Shaub told ABC News. “It is critical to the public’s faith in the integrity of government that White House employees be held to the same standard of ethical accountability as other executive branch employees.”
If Conway’s promotion of the Ivanka line did indeed boost sales over the short term, the long-run consequences could be disastrous for Conway and for the reputation of the Trump administration.
The lesson for companies developing a strategy to address boycotts is simple: Don’t dig yourself into a deeper hole by engaging in behavior that could be construed as unethical.
Follow the numbers…
Another important issue involves the sales figures themselves.
Tracking the effect of a boycott over the short term is a difficult exercise, considering the raft of factors affecting retail sales from season to season.
That’s especially true of consumer-based boycotts. Many consumer boycotts are flash-in-the-pan exercises that fail to impact the bottom line in any discernible way. Starbucks, for example, routinely powered its way through a series of consumer boycotts in recent years.
The converse is also true. While numerous media reports implied a causal effect between the February sales spike and Conway’s pitch for Ivanka, a definitive conclusion would require more detailed analysis.
In any case, the widely reported news of a February sales spike was based primarily on figures compiled by the e-commerce site Lyst.
News reports also point to market analysis by the online shopping specialist Slice Intelligence.
Neither of those sources indicate trends for in-store purchases. The Ivanka brand itself is not required to divulge sales figures, and as of this writing it has not done so.
In other words, the reports of an online sales spike for Ivanka are not necessarily an indication of a healthy brand.
One indication of ill health is a Feb. 10 report in Time magazine. If there really was a February sales spike, it’s possible that deep discounts deserve more credit than Conway’s pitch. The article notes that many retailers still carrying Ivanka products were featuring “enormous discounts” and “fire-sale prices.” Here’s one sample:
“Lord and Taylor: Dozens of Ivanka Trump shoes are now on sale on a buy-one, get-one-50%-off basis, and others are subject to plain old clearance discounts. For example, a pair of Domin Patent Leather Pumps originally listed at $145 has been marked down to $58,” reported Time.
When boycotts work
For its part, Grab Your Wallet is undeterred by the positive reports swirling around the Ivanka brand.
That’s probably because the organization has focused its efforts on one key element that can make all the difference between a successful boycott and a failure: brand reputation.
The Trump administration has raised the reputation issue to a whole new level. The athletic wear company Under Armour, for example, was recently forced to backpedal furiously to avoid a boycott after its CEO issued some favorable comments about the administration.
The Ivanka brand certainly falls into the category of companies that are struggling with reputation issues related to the Trump administration.
The Grab Your Wallet campaign leverages that vulnerability in a holistic way: by aiming at retailers that are eager to avoid the ripple effect of the Ivanka association.
By that measure, the month of February was also a good one for Grab Your Wallet.
On March 12 Shannon Coulter, the brand strategist who founded Grab Your Wallet, tweeted out this message to her followers:
“.@IvankaTrumpHQ claims record sales in Feb, a month in which 14 companies cut ties w/Trump fam incl. Nordstrom. Let’s see how March goes.”
One of those companies was Burlington Coat Factory, which pulled Ivanka products from its website just a few days after the Conway pitch.
Sears and K-Mart also dropped the Ivanka home products line within a week after Conway’s television appearance.
March appears to be off to a good start for Grab Your Wallet as well.
In other recent developments, the Ivanka brand downscaled its former fine jewelry line to a lower price range.