Last weekend TriplePundit turned its attention to the plethora of boycotts that erupted during last year's presidential campaign. The number of companies under boycott has grown since Election Day, and it seems that American consumers are more willing than ever to express their political views in the shopping aisles. However, a central question remains: Just how effective are boycotts?
For an answer, it's instructive to look at the recent history of the iconic U.S. food company Kellogg.
Some say the boycott worked . . .
Last year Kellogg got into hot water with Breitbart News, an organization linked to the white nationalist movement and to President Donald Trump. (Former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon became a key Trump campaign official last year and he is now a top advisor, credited with developing Trump's "Muslim ban" executive order among other policies.)
The flashpoint occurred in November, when Kellogg decided to pull its advertising from the Breitbart website, citing a conflict with the company's values. Associated Press reported this explanation from Kellogg spokesperson Kris Charles:
“We regularly work with our media buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company,” Charles said. “This involves reviewing websites where ads could potentially be placed using filtering technology to assess site content. As you can imagine, there is a very large volume of websites, so occasionally something is inadvertently missed.”
Breitbart promptly called for a boycott against Kellogg. At first glance, it would seem the call-to-action was a success, because Kellogg popped into the news recently for several rounds of layoffs affecting hundreds of workers.
In an interview last Friday during the Breitbart News Daily show on SiriusXM radio, Breitbart economics and finance editor John Carney credited the boycott with depressing Kellogg's bottom line:
"... It’s the guys who decided to put their businesses on the line by challenging the values of the millions and millions of Americans who both listen to Breitbart or who voted for Donald Trump...”
“It’s not exactly clear what they meant when they said that they don’t share our values, but why they did that, it’s not exactly clear to me. But I think you’re right: they share the globalist mentality..."
. . . and some say it didn't
If you step back and look at the big picture, though, it's not obvious that Breitbart can take any credit for sparking the layoffs.
In 2013, Kellogg embarked on a four-year "efficiency and effectiveness" initiative called Project K. Among other elements, Project K involves a fair degree of downsizing as well as restructuring.
The layoffs began piling up long before Breitbart called for a boycott. Earlier this month, USA Today noted that Kellogg eliminated 600 jobs at three sites in 2014 and 2015.
The latest round of layoffs results partly from the expansion of Project K to include a "transformational" switch in the way Kellogg delivers products to stores. Rather than operating its own distribution centers, Kellogg will deliver products directly to retailers' warehouses.
It's also not clear that the boycott had any effect on the pace of sales for Kellogg. Sales were flattening out across the cereal sector of the food industry before the boycott.
Unless Breitbart has some hard numbers to offer, it seems Kellogg's recent state of affairs is more likely attributed to the kind of long-term planning that would enable a legacy food company to remain competitive as consumer tastes change.
More to the point, if Breitbart meant to injure Kellogg's profitability, that hasn't happened. The company's stock has been trending upward over the past several several years, and that trend has continued into 2017.
What makes a boycott successful?
So, why was the Breitbart boycott not a clear-cut success?
Professor Braydon King of the coincidentally-named firm Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has studied successful and unsuccessful boycotts. His research indicates that boycotts are most effective when they have a demonstrable impact on a company's reputation.
The best targets for boycotts, King says, are "companies with good reputations that are on the decline."
It's not immediately obvious that the Kellogg brand has lost its sheen, so choosing an elusive target was probably Breitbart's first mistake.
Another mistake would be targeting the wrong consumers. A breakdown of consumer behavior by InfoScout indicates that Kellogg sales are strongest in one of the bluest regions of the U.S., the Northeast. InfoScout's data suggests that the typical Kellogg consumer is not inclined to log onto Breitbart News, let alone follow the organization's call to boycott a favorite product:
"A Kellogg's consumer is generally higher income, African American, and lower middle age," InfoScout found.
A third mistake could be targeting the wrong kind of product. Food habits are notoriously difficult to break compared to other aspects of American life.
And, finally, boycotts should have a goal worth cheering. Certainly Breitbart did not intend for hundreds of workers to lose their livelihoods, but the news organization is now in the awkward position of claiming success on that basis.
When boycotts backfire
Ironically, Breitbart itself has been the subject of a business-to-business boycott that may turn out to be more effective than its anti-Kellogg messaging.
Around the time that Kellogg pulled its advertising from Breitbart, other companies also began opting out. And publicity over Breitbart's call for a boycott against Kellogg may have helped turn that trickle into a flood.
Last week, CBS News reported that the number of companies refusing to place ads on Breitbart topped 800, according to the organization Sleeping Giants.
Adding to the irony, some companies are even using publicity over their Breitbart boycotts to boost their reputations and cement a progressive public image.
Here's a representative sample from Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin, cited by CBS:
“One of Lyft’s core values is to uplift and support one another in all that we do ... We strive to ensure that our advertisements appear only on sites that share this value.”
The jury is still out on whether or not Breitbart is experiencing any significant loss of revenue from the B2B boycott.
At least one remaining source of revenue for the news organization comes through the Canadian e-commerce company Shopify, which as of last week was still selling Breitbart merchandise online. (To be clear, the company does not advertise on Breitbart -- it carries Breitbart merchandise.)
That could change soon, though. As reported by Recode and elsewhere, Shopify has become the subject of a social media campaign urging it to drop Breitbart, and employees are questioning the company's policy on client relations.
Image (screenshot): via @BreitbartNews,Twitter.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.