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Tina Casey headshot

When Boycotts Work: Co-Opting a Brand for Bad Intentions

By Tina Casey
the rector of a historic church by the White House washer he hands of any association with Trump

In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, it quickly became apparent that brand reputation was caught in the middle of the battle for the White House. Since then, a long string of brand boycotts has piled up, centering on hateful rhetoric and discriminatory policies of the Donald Trump administration. Now the reputational factor has taken a sudden turn that should alarm brand managers across the board.

When boycotts work: brand reputation at risk

Hate-inciting campaign rhetoric was the inspiration for two influential boycott campaigns that launched in 2016, Grab Your Wallet and Sleeping Giants.

Both campaigns aim at empowering individual consumers to pressure brands into taking a stand against hate and other offensive behavior, by leveraging the organizing power of social media.

Consumer boycotts are notoriously difficult to sustain, but both of these campaigns have succeeded in underscoring the reputational risk that brands assume by association, as advertisers and as retailers.

A new challenge for brand managers

Over and above organized efforts like Grab Your Wallet and Sleeping Giants, the Trump administration has touched off a minefield for brand managers, with high-profile corporate names from Under Armour to Tesla feeling the impact.

The COVID-19 crisis has also given rise to new complications as companies scramble to respond to public health guidance, despite conflicting signals from the Trump administration.

In one recent example, Ford suffered a stinging, high-profile setback on its worker safety efforts after President Trump removed his face mask during a visit to one of the automakers facilities in Michigan.

Brand reputation takes a sudden turn

The media blowback could have been worse for Ford, but it has been overshadowed by a week of protests triggered by the death — an apparent homicide — of George Floyd during an arrest in Minnesota after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

Against this backdrop, on Monday President Trump staged a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C.

The White House forced peaceful demonstrators from the vicinity and did not seek permission from the church or provide a courtesy call beforehand.

Nevertheless, the photo depicts Trump on church property, holding a bible with the words “St. John’s Church Parish House” clearly visible on a sign in the background. Since then, the commentary has been seething, with the president's defense secretary offering an awkward excuse that he didn't know what was going on in the moments leading up to the photo op.

The Episcopalian brand takes a stand

Reaction to the photo op was swift and unequivocal, at least on the part of Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

In widely circulated comments to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Bishop Budde excoriated the president for his use of force against peaceful demonstrators, for his failure to use the church’s property for its intended purpose, and for his failure to “acknowledge the agony of our country.”

Budde drew particular attention to the president’s failure to address people of color, “who are rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.”

More to the point, Budde washed her hands — and her brand — of association with the president.

“And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love ... we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this president. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love,” she said.

The social media connection

In the middle of all this, of course, is the impact on social media brand reputation.

Twitter has come in for its share of criticism for failing to moderate content, but the company did modify its position on oversight last November when it banned all political ads.

Another important move came last week, when Twitter put a warning label on misleading tweets from President Trump regarding elections.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey followed up with a statement clearly affirming the company’s policy on elections information. “Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and thats me,” Dorsey stated in a follow-up tweet on May 27. Well continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make."

In contrast, last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his company’s hands-off policy in the context of the George Floyd protests, though insisting that he is personally offended by “divisive and inflammatory rhetoric” such as that deployed by the president.

In a 600-word post on Facebook, Zuckerberg’s argument basically boiled down to the idea that each statement should be examined individually. “…We should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies,” he explained.

However, rhetorical impacts are like environmental impacts. The harm may be difficult or impossible to measure individually, but it can easily add up to a clear, identifiable impact.

Employee activism and shareholder revolt in play

Perhaps the events surrounding the occupation of St. John’s Church by President Trump will motivate Zuckerberg to modify his position with Twitter-like warning labels.

After all, Facebook has previously joined Twitter and other social media companies to warn users about the dangers of anti-vaccination misinformation. More recently, the company has joined a coordinated social media effort to warn against COVID-19 misinformation as well.

This week’s episode has renewed calls for social media users to boycott Facebook. The common wisdom about consumer boycotts is that they are often ineffective, but they do have a chance of success when brands are already suffering reputational loss, and that is what appears to be at play.

In an ominous sign of that reputational loss, earlier this week Facebook employees put public pressure on the company’s hands-off policy on presidential posts, the first time in memory that employees have taken such an action.

A shareholder revolt has also gained renewed momentum, as part of a years-long effort to remove Trump supporter Peter Thiel from Facebook’s board.

Zuckerberg is notoriously stubborn, but the stakes are high and the pressure to take meaningful action is mounting.

A good start to repair the damage would be to take a cue from Bishop Budde and include her disclaimer on the White House’s Facebook account, which has posted video of the now-notorious photo op for all to see.

Image credit: Koshu Kunii/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey