With #deleteuber and #grabyourwallet trending, we ask: Do boycotts work?

Katrina Clarke | February 21, 2017 | CBC Life

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Hudson’s Bay is in the crosshairs of a Trump boycott – but does it matter?

With the Grab Your Wallet campaign against Trump products gaining steam in the United States and news that some companies, such as Nordstrom, are dropping Ivanka Trump’s line, it appears Trump boycotts are not only succeeding, but expanding in scope.

But just because experts predict more boycotts are to come doesn’t mean they’ll work. Indeed, the Hamilton boycott, initiated by Trump supporters after then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a November performance of the Broadway musical and was given a talking-to by the cast, asking him to work on behalf of all Americans, appears to have failed, and the Bay boycott may not even be making a dent in sales.

Hudson’s Bay director of corporate communications Tiffany Bourre declined to answer questions from CBC Life about whether the Bay has seen a decline in sales in recent months, if sales of Ivanka Trump products have decreased or if the Bay is considering dropping her line, but did provide the following statement:

“Across our banners, we aim to a deliver a strong assortment of fashion. We respect our customers’ right to choose the brands that work for them. In turn, our customers’ choices inform our decisions on which merchandise we offer,” Bourre wrote in an email.

Nordstrom, too, said itdidn’t drop Ivanka Trump’s line because it was taking a political position, but because the line was performing poorly.

However, a #DeleteUber boycott — initiated after Uber continued offering service during a taxi strike at JFK airport in the midst of CEO Travis Kalanick’s participation in Trump’s economic advisory council — did catch on. Kalanick stepped down from the advisory group earlier this month.

While we wait and see if the “baycott” does indeed pressure the Bay to drop Trump’s line, we ask the experts: what makes a boycott succeed and what makes it fail?

Unlikely to succeed, but generating awareness nonetheless

According to Marc Gordon, a marketing expert based in Toronto, boycotts can raise awareness about an issue but they rarely succeed when it comes to impacting a company’s bottom line.

“In terms of hitting companies in (the) pocketbook…for the most part they don’t work,” said Gordon. “What will often happen is the company will see a short term drop in sales, but after a relatively short time, things will pretty much return to normal.”

Gordon said while there may be an initial swell of people joining a boycott, a boycott’s long-term success depends on three things: support for a cause, a certain level of affection for a company and people’s willingness to change their behaviour.

“If nobody cares about the cause, you’re not going to get much of a reaction from people,” he said. Additionally, if people love and have a loyal attachment to a company or brand, they’re less likely to turn against it, he said.

In terms of changing behaviour, the more you’re asking someone to do, the less they’re likely to stick to it, said Gordon. “I think a lot of these (Trump) boycotts will fail because they’re asking too much of people,” he said. “Grab Your Wallet would have been better off saying, ‘Just don’t buy the Trump product line.'”

Indeed, last week’s Saturday Night Live Snapchat show parodied how difficult it would be to boycott everything even remotely Trump-related. The sketch showed a couple rejecting Uber, Coors beer, Kraft macaroni and cheese and even shower curtains from Bed Bath and Beyond, due to perceived and real links to Trump.

What Gordon does see as being effective is the power of a boycott to harness attention on social media.

“It does definitely build momentum quicker,” said Gordon.

On the other hand: Companies will respond to threats to reputation

Companies dread losing loyal customers – which can be a very real consequence of boycotts, said Doug Stephens, a retail industry futurist and founder of Retail Prophet. “Brands work really hard to try and gain consumer confidence, consumer trust and loyalty, and they certainly are not going to dispose of all of that for the sake of one line of apparel,” said Stephens. “At the end of the day, if a brand feels it’s going to lose business…that’s an easy decision to make if you’re a retail executive.”

And while some boycotts end up benign, failing to pressure companies into action, Stephens thinks the Trump boycotts may succeed. “When you get perfect storm of the right amount of anger and the right amount of awareness, these (boycotts) can be significant,” he said. “Certainly, we’re seeing that play out.”

Stephens said in light of the political climate in the United States, customers are becoming “emboldened,” forcing brands to declare where they stand on political issues.

But this new politicized reality is still uncharted territory – pleasing one group of people may put a company in the crosshairs of another group. Nordstrom’s move to dump Ivanka Trump’s line prompted some Trump supporters to initiate their own boycott of the department store.

Still, brands better get used to this new reality. Stephens predicts many more Trump-related boycotts and protests are to come in 2017.

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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