Do #BrandBoycotts make any difference?

The milk brand Oatly got into some hot water (see what I did there?) last week when Twitter ‘erupted’ with allegations about one of its major investors, Blackstone. Allegations that don’t exactly live up to Oatly’s highly purposeful, sustainable positioning.

This being social media, it quickly led to a #boycottoatly campaign with lots of people making passionate commitments to stop buying the product, and lots of articles speculating on the damage inflicted on the brand. For my money, it’ll be negligible.

This got me thinking about whether brand boycotts whipped up on social media ever have any impact on sales or long term brand value?

In the world of sports brands, Nike got boycotted in 2018 when a lot of US consumers took exception to its Colin Kaepernick campaign (which, unlike Oatly, was absolutely in line with the Nike brand image). There was much talk of people burning their Nike shoes and tearing up clothes, which I never quite understand because they’ve already bought them.

The share price did take a brief dive, but recovered rapidly and Nike earnings for that quarter were up 14% (the same quarter in 2017, revenue growth was just 4%).

So, no lasting impact. If anything, the “boycott” gave Nike a boost.

Nike was in the conservative cross-hairs again in July 2019 after removing a controversial Betsy Ross flag from one of its products. Again, revenues up 10% for that quarter.

What about Peloton? Last December they got the social media boycott treatment on the back of an, admittedly, very strange and not very good ad. Again, there was a very temporary blip in share price (prompting declarations that the ad has cost $1.5bn in value). But, within days, it had recovered most of that value and Q1 2020 sales were up 66% year on year (partly driven by the Covid-19 lockdown).

When it comes to customer boycotts fuelled by social media, we need to remember a few things.

1/ What we see in our social media feeds is not representative of what most people think. Brexit and Trump should have taught us that lesson.

2/ What people say on social media isn’t necessarily backed up by action. It’s very easy to say you’re going to boycott a brand and do a bit of virtue-signalling, with no intention of actually changing buying behaviour.

3/ Most people don’t actually care that deeply about brands. However much we as marketers would like to think otherwise, most buying decisions are made at a pretty functional level: Is it what I need? Am I familiar with it? Is it available? Is it a good price? Deeper emotions only rarely come in to play.

4/ Brand loyalty does exist, however, and it’s a pretty tough habit to break: the average person would need to feel very strongly about an issue to permanently stop buying a brand they are otherwise in the habit of buying. Most people don’t feel this strongly about anything to do with brands.

In most cases, brand boycotts are just a storm in a teacup (with or without Oatly in it). They can create a busy few days for the social media team, some unwelcome media headlines and possibly a very short term dip in share price.

But then things move on, people forget and there is rarely any long lasting impact on sales or value.

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