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Boycotts and Brands in Public Relations

The social activism stratagem isn’t new; boycotts have been the choice of consumers who want to voice their opinions via their pocketbooks for as long as brands have existed. But in today’s hyper-connected world, the impact a boycott can have on a brand has grown exponentially. One misstep can lead to an avalanche of protest – both on- and off-line – that can wreak havoc on a brand’s reputation, not to mention its bottom line.

To the consumer, brands are people and people are brands. Therefore, consumers apply the same expectations they have of people to brands. According to a May 2018 report in ADWEEK, nearly 89 percent of Gen Z says they’re only loyal to brands that share their values. And the insights from the 2017 Earned Brand Report from Edelman indicate that preference isn’t unique to Gen Z. Consider this:

  • 57% of all consumers are more likely to buy from or boycott a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue.
  • 30% are more likely to make purchase decisions about a brand based on a brand’s beliefs than they were just three years ago.
  • 67% purchased a brand for the first time because of its stance on a touchy social issue.
  • 65% wouldn’t buy a brand due to its silence on an issue.
  • 23% said they are willing to pay more for that brand’s products
  • 48% would advocate and defend the brand
  • 51% would be loyal to the brand, buying it exclusively and more frequently.

The blurred line between brand and person can lead to a brand getting swept up in the controversy around not only social issues, but also individuals associated with the brand. For example, when Facebook and its CEO, Mike Zuckerberg, come under fire, the brand takes a beating in the stock market. More significantly, they lose the trust of thousands of their users. Financial gain can be recovered; earning back the trust of consumers who felt wronged is next to impossible.

A reputable communications agency with strong experience in crisis management and public affairs can help a brand weather the storm, navigate the choppy waters that surround it, and arrive on the other side of the situation intact. As an industry colleague shared in a blog post, activists will do anything to bring attention to their cause, including vandalizing a brand’s identity through social media networks, advertising, direct mail and grassroots efforts through which they can reach and activate their supporters. If left unchecked, activist groups can control the conversation, putting the brand in a defensive position.

With some foresight and smart planning completed long before it is needed, brands can either avoid a boycott altogether, mitigate the damage or even manage the situation to the brand’s benefit. If you aren’t using these three baseline tactics to protect your organization, carve out some time immediately to implement them and be watchful. The tide of public opinion can turn quickly.

Keep your enemy close.

The adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” is valuable. Pay attention to any group or individual you consider to be unfriendly (or potentially unfriendly) to your organization. You want to be aware of their top concerns and looped in on discussions and social media chatter related to those concerns. Follow their social media accounts, sign up for their newsletters and take advantage of all the ways in which they communicate with their supporters.

Keep your eyes open.

Stay abreast of the news and current trending topics related to your industry so you can anticipate potentially negative developments well ahead of time. More importantly, sign up for Google Alerts to get email notices when the key words and phrases, names and relevant trends that you specify appear in online news or other content.

Keep your communication plan fresh.

If you don’t have a plan for how to handle a business crisis, get one in place immediately. Once a plan is in place, revisit it at least once a year. Make sure your strategies are sound, your staff is properly trained and your key messages are on point.

We are surrounded by innumerable perspectives and opinions, and the damage a boycott can have on a brand can be staggering. It can unravel years of consumer preference, goodwill and market share. Your best defense is to be prepared and be attentive.

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