You are currently viewing Brand Boycott: From Controversies to Coping Strategies Lessons from the Front-lines of Corporate Accountability

Brand Boycott: From Controversies to Coping Strategies Lessons from the Front-lines of Corporate Accountability

These days, the term “boycott” is being applied to various issues and situations. But what about brand boycotts? I think the ever-changing world of consumer activism and corporate accountability has given birth to brand boycotts as strong tools to hold companies accountable for their actions. Lately, Bangladesh has also been experiencing various instances of boycotts. Certain brands are experiencing adverse effects, while others are seeing gains. However, brand boycotts, which may range from labour rights abuse to issues pertaining to environmental and immoral practices to social injustices, are usually triggered by matters that resonate with the values and convictions of consumers.

In this article, I will explore stories behind different brand boycotts as well as strategies that brands use to counter them. From multinational corporations to local businesses, no brand is immune to the potential fallout of a boycott. However, how a brand responds to the challenge can make all the difference in determining its fate.

Boycotts in ancient history were not uncommon, although they may not have been referred to using the same terminology as today. Several cases include:

1. Ostracism in Ancient Athens (5th century BCE): Ostracism was an ancient Athenian method that allowed citizens to vote out influential persons from the polis for ten years. This practice did not exactly qualify as a boycott but ostracism was one way of socially and politically excluding individuals perceived as threatening to democratic values or stability of the polis.

2. Spartan Embargo on Megara (c. 432 BCE): In the Peloponnesian War, Sparta laid an embargo on its trading partner Megara, which led to a prohibition of her merchants from using Spartan ports or markets. It was part of the broader war between Athens and Sparta.

3. Roman Boycott of Grain Imports (1st century BCE): In 40 BCE, the Roman Senate declared a ban on grain imports from Egypt because there was a shortage in Rome. Part of this boycott was a series of steps aimed at dealing with starvation and regulating the cost of grain within the city.

4. Ancient Jewish Boycotts: In ancient history of Judaism, there were cases of boycotting used in form resistance or as a protest.
See, all these examples demonstrate how boycotts or similar collective actions were used for different purposes such as political, economic or social objectives in ancient societies.

Different regions and periods have seen a variety of brand boycotts. If brands can tactfully sail through such periods, then they will survive. Now, let me tell you about some stories of how brands managed to weather boycotts:
1. Coca-Cola: In the 1980s, Coca-Cola was boycotted because it had investments in apartheid-era South Africa. Activists and human rights groups called for a boycott of Coca-Cola products to protest its activities.
Tactics: Coca-Cola changed certain policies relating to South Africa, sold off its bottling operations, and supported social justice and reconciliation initiatives. These actions ultimately saved the company from consumer backlash while regaining customer trust.
2. Nestlé: During the 1970s and 1980s, Nestle was boycotted due to questionable marketing practices regarding infant formula in developing countries. Critics claimed that Nestle had been responsible for the poor nourishment and death of babies consuming infant formula instead of breast milk, which it encouraged through aggressive promotion strategies.
Tactics: what was Nestle’s action? They replaced its code on breast-milk substitute marketing thus shifting their marketing strategies & addressing stakeholders who were concerned. These actions have helped Nestle to win back trust from consumers. Moreover, improved strong corporate citizenship positioning.
3. McDonald’s: At the beginning of 2000s, McDonald’s was forced to deal with a boycott after being accused of labour abuses and unfair practices targeting its supply chain. According to the accusations, the fast-food giant exploited its workforce by paying meager salaries & keeping hazardous working conditions at their restaurants and supplier factories.
Tactics: In order to resolve this issue, the company initiated various initiatives. They aimed at improving labor standards, raising wages as well as increasing safety for employees. The firm approached various stakeholders including pressure groups concerned with workers’ rights in addressing these issues; it also sought to encourage responsible business practices.
4. Starbucks: When two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks shop leading to a boycott in 2018; the company had faced an incident. It resulted in racial profiling against them that saw calls being made to boycott all Starbucks shops nationwide.
Tactics: Starbucks had to act quickly in response to the boycott which included issuing a public apology. They closed their entire stores for one day for racial bias training purposes, discussed with community leaders and developed programs for diversity and inclusion in the organization structures of the company.
5. Ben & Jerry’s: In 2016 Ben & Jerry’s experienced a boycott after supporting “Black Lives Matter” campaign and calling for reforming criminal justice system. The point of view of some customers was contrary to the company and the customers threatened to boycott its products.
Tactics: The company, however, stayed true to its principles. They kept on supporting social justice campaigns. Ben & Jerry’s engaged stakeholders, communicated their dedication to social responsibility and took proactive steps against racial disparities eventually winning back loyal consumers.
6. H&M: After H&M featured a black child wearing a hoodie emblazoned “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” in one of its racially insensitive advertisements, it also faced calls for boycotts during the late 2010s. The ad evoked accusations of racism and cultural insensitivity; hence, people called for a boycott of H&M.
Tactics: H&M issued a public apology, pulled the advert off the air and commenced efforts to build diversity and inclusion into its policies. Besides, H&M reached out to stakeholders, including community leaders and advocacy groups, in order to understand their concerns. It also promoted racial equality and representation across its marketing programs as well as daily operations. These activities helped the company to minimise the effect of the boycott while at the same time restoring relationships with clients and communities.

The preceding six brands I explained above were able to effectively address boycotts. But I found numerous examples that failed to manage boycott issues. Next, I’ll provide some examples of failures in managing boycotts:

1. BP (British Petroleum): In 2010, BP faced boycotts following an oil spillage incident termed Deepwater Horizon from the Gulf of Mexico, known for being one of the worst environmental disasters ever witnessed in history. The disaster caused destruction to ecosystems within oceans, loss in terms of marine life, and damage in terms of oceanic plants while also causing harm to coastal societies. Consequently, activists organised a series of protests, which included stopping sales at BP stations and petrol stations, along with other products.
BP’s response to the spill was too slow, involved no transparency and did not sufficiently address the environmental and social impacts of the explosion. The move by people to boycott BP affected their reputation, leading to huge financial losses.

2. Volkswagen: In 2015, there was a strong boycott against Volkswagen after finding out that it had fitted its diesel vehicles with software to cheat on emissions tests. In reaction to these misleading acts by the company, relating to environment as well as consumers wanted a total ban on all Volkswagen products. Although they later sought an apology from affected clients together with compensating them, Volkswagen shattered its good image and saw it lose sales and market shares.

3. United Airlines: A video went viral in 2017 showing David Dao being dragged off an overbooked flight, which triggered calls for boycotts against United Airlines Company. People were angry at how United Airlines handled the situation and mistreated their passengers during this episode. People also were annoyed because some have accused it of acting too harshly toward them. But unfortunately, In spite of efforts to apologize and compensate the aggrieved, backlash hit United Airlines, leading to a damaged reputation and loss of customer trust and loyalty.
Actually, overcoming a boycott against a brand is not an easy task. It’s a complex process that requires a strategic and multifaceted approach. However, below, I am going to explore strategic steps that can be taken by a leader/brand head in order to address and overcome brand boycott effectively:

1. Understand The Reason for The Boycott: Completely understand what led up to the boycott. Listen to the concerns of boycotter including issues of products quality, ethics, social responsibility among others; this might entail carrying out surveys or conducting interviews and focus group discussions.

2. Address Root Causes: Identify reasons behind the boycotts and take necessary measures aimed at addressing them fully. This may require changing business practices, policies, products or corporate culture so as they reflect values and expectations of boycotter.

3. Engage in Dialogue: Have a productive talk with organizers of boycotts, stakeholders and the affected community. Try to listen to the problems raised by taking the blame and being ready for compromise.

4. Take Meaningful Action: Anti-boycott factions’ problems will be addressed respectfully through effective interventions that could include policy changes, responsible sourcing initiatives, better conditions of work and social programs that depict what is being boycotted in action. Ensure these actions are visible in the long term.

5. Communicate Transparently: Be highly open and ahead of issues in this area concerning your boycott activities to various stakeholders; tell them about past mistakes or provide updates on improvement, but don’t pretend through platforms such as Facebook, live or press statements.

6. Rebuild Trust And Credibility: Continuously act honestly and transparently so as to reestablish trust and confidence among people once more for sure.

7. Engage Loyal Customers: Reach out to past customers who may have been affected by the boycott. Understand and clarify on their part the idea behind the brand, its vision and mission.

8. Monitor and Evaluate: Keep an eye on your pursuit of the boycott’s defeat, along with an efficiency assessment of your own plans.

9. Stay Committed and Resilient: Overcoming a product boycott is not easy; it is an ongoing process that requires patience, persistence, and resilience.

By doing these things as well as indicating a commitment to engaging concerns and re-establishing trust, organisations/brands can start fighting against boycotts and gaining back their reputations plus credibility among stakeholders.

In short, consumer activism in the form of brand boycotts is usually motivated by complaints about corporate irresponsibility. Through practical examples and strategic insights, we have seen how brands manoeuvre through such troubled times, ranging from listening and getting involved with their stakeholder up to taking bold moves while showing real commitment to change. Boycotts against brands teach us about the importance of ethical actions, openness, and effective customer service that can build trust in the future especially when brands remain under the microscope or are faced with difficulties. In this age where consumers have more power and awareness, corporations should step up to their roles and grow a thick skin so they will be able to withstand any challenges that may come their way.

Author- A.K.M. Moinul Islam

Leave a Reply