Navigating a politically fractured landscape and a torrent of social media-fueled boycotts is a complex exercise, but it does not have to be a difficult one. Brands that focus on core values that support all stakeholders — corporate, customer and employee — will be less vulnerable to reputational damage from boycotts and more likely to continue thriving in an increasingly diverse society.
A boycott can stir up considerable media attention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can succeed in forcing a business to change its behavior.
In fact, consumer boycotts can be notoriously difficult to sustain. Starbucks is a case in point. The brand has weathered a string of boycotts in recent years, all to no effect.
On the other hand, research shows that boycotts can be effective when they target a brand that is already experiencing reputational decline. Social media exacerbates that reputational effect by handing a bullhorn to millions of otherwise voiceless people.
The social media effect makes it all the more important for brands to know the values of their customers, especially in the context of political polarization.
A 2019 article in KelloggInsight, the magazine Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, underscores that point. Writer Samantha Eyler-Driscoll explained that the largely urban, liberal clientele of SoulCycle pushed back vigorously when news surfaced that the chair of its parent company was planning a campaign fundraiser for former U.S. President Trump. Conversely, a conservative-lead boycott against Nike and its spokesperson Colin Kaepernick failed to gather traction. Instead, strengthened its reputation among its core consumers, including younger consumers and liberal-leaning sneaker fans.
The recent episode involving AB InBev paints a more nuanced picture. The company’s best-selling Bud Light brand came under withering fire from conservatives in April, after Bud Light gifted a special-edition can to the transgender actor, activist and social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Beer drinkers on the left were also outraged when AB InBev failed to push back strongly. Sales of Bud Light plunged in May, though AB InBev is still having a banner year overall and some analysts expect the Bud Light brand to recover over the long term.
In a contrast to AB InBev’s stumbling response, the leading U.S. food service brands Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel seem to have breezed over two recent social media incidents of their own. In both cases, the transition from a conservative corporate culture to a more inclusive one appears to have had an impact.
Chick-fil-A is privately owned by members of the Cathy family, through which the brand has become known for anti-LGBTQ activism. However, over the past 10 years the company has taken steps to cut ties with anti-LGBTQ groups while also expanding its environmental stewardship profile.
The crossover from environmental sustainability to social inclusiveness seems to have grown in recent years. The company established the position of vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion as far back as 2021, if not earlier, and its website includes a detailed message about its DEI policy.
The trouble began on May 31 when a single social media post mischaracterized the vice president’s role as a new position. The post set off a firestorm of calls for a boycott from conservatives, to which Chick-fil-A has not formally responded as of this writing.
Silence could be the most effective strategy in this case. After all the work Chick-fil-A has undertaken to change its behavior and move past its anti-LGBTQ image, it is unlikely for the company to allow one social media episode to set it back.
As a food service company, Chick-fil-A is also shielded by the fact that food habits are notoriously hard to change. In her article for KelloggInsight, Eyler-Driscoll cites School of Management professor Brayden King, who has done extensive research on boycotts “Consumers tend to have an empowered voice but weak behavioral will,” King told her.
“Some people expressed the belief that they had engaged in a boycott, but when we look at their actual purchasing behavior, there’s no difference in purchasing between those who believed they’ve boycotted and those who did not support the boycott,” he added.
The twin dynamic of food and habit appears to be at work in the case of Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel. The latter came under fire from conservatives last week when it posted a photo of its signature front porch display of rocking chairs, including one painted in rainbow stripes.
“We are excited to celebrate Pride Month with our employees and guests,” the post read. “Everyone is always welcome at our table (and our rocker). Happy Pride!”
As with Chick-fil-A, Cracker Barrel has not responded to the calls for boycott. Most likely, it will not. The company still has a solid footing in its conservative image, but it has also been reaching out to accommodate the more diverse tastes of today.
In one indication of the company’s ability to manage social media adversity, Cracker Barrel survived another conservative media firestorm last summer after it added a plant-based sausage to its menu.
Despite the recent torrent of anti-ESG activity and rhetoric about “woke” businesses, Cracker Barrel has also continued to advocate for environmental, social and governance practices on its website and expand its ESG reporting. “We have committed to drive environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues forward,” the company states. Stepping back from those commitments over one social media episode is unlikely.
Eyler-Driscoll cautions that a high-profile, media-enabled boycott could damage a company’s reputation, even if it has little or no direct impact on consumer behavior. The reputational factor could spill over into employee recruitment and retention, for example.
In that regard, ESG principles that attract customers and clients can also provide a risk-avoiding shield.“Savvy companies that do try to connect with customers on a personal level often choose, of their own volition, to engage in corporate social responsibility activities, such as building sustainable supply chains, developing worker-friendly policies, or engaging with various communities,” Eyler-Driscoll noted.
“The key is for companies to know who they are, and who their core stakeholders are, and what those stakeholders believe in," King said.
With public opinion firmly on the side of ESG principles, even conservative-leaning brands have plenty of incentive to stick to the principles of civil rights and social progress, regardless of boycott threats.
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.