Should brands speak out in the year of the brand boycott?

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands Explained


That is my shortest article of all time.

I have intensely strong political opinions in my head, but I will not share them. They are likely as strong or even stronger than yours. But I will not post them on Facebook. I will never go against them at any point in my life. Ever. Yet, I keep mine in my head. And I completely respect yours, even if they are in direct opposition to mine. I refuse to take a political stand in public. They make voting booths private for a reason.

When it comes to politics, people cannot see straight. I have learned 1000 times in my life that you will never change their minds. I have learned about 15 times this year on Facebook. It is crazy. They cannot even hear you. That is ok. That is the reality of the market a brand must play within.

With such a divided electorate, it is too dangerous for brands to take sides.

As a person, I love that people have political convictions and applaud them for speaking out. I loved that millions marched. It was truly inspirational. Now, if you enjoy speaking out, go for it. Your choice. I know you think I am wrong. I have tried to hint to friends that they should tone down their inflammatory Facebook posts, but to no avail. They seem to need that therapeutic. It is perfectly OK for an individual, buried somewhere on your personal Twitter or Facebook feed with your 334 followers. Have fun.

Even if you are the CEO, you are still just an employee who works for the shareholders.

I love Howard Schultz. He is one of the most brilliant marketing minds of our today’s world. Maybe he will run for office one day. Maybe he will win. But as a brand, Starbucks should have been more careful this week. He should have produced a vague statement of defiance like P&G, Nike or Facebook, which look like a team of 30 lawyers read over every word. After reading it a few times, I am not even sure what the P&G’s statement says. Schultz may have over-estimated the Starbucks brand’s support, as they did behind the #racetogether campaign. As their loyal consumers rejected #racetogether, they did quickly back away. Now as a person, I don’t think people should boycott Starbucks for offering to hire refugees. But they did. Schultz is just employee #1 at Starbucks, reporting to the shareholders. Three days after speaking out, Starbucks just lost $5 Billion in market valuation. Wow. That’s a 7-8% loss in a robust stock market. I sure hope the waters calm down and they bounce back up. Then you could argue it was worth it. But what if the stock bounces down to a 20% loss?  What is the price it is worth it? 30%?  Still worth it? What’s the price to pay when you are gambling with the hard earned savings of those stockholders counting on that money for their retirement. Shareholders are not the 1%, but the 50%. Half of America participates in the stock market. They are counting on that money to be there.

Brands only exist to make more money than the product alone could ever do.

I believe brand’s only exist for companies to make more money than if they sold the product alone. Sure, you can have a brand purpose or brand soul that wants to make a difference. If having a conviction makes you more profits, I say, “Have more conviction”. However, if you just a coffee shop with nice seats, be more careful. Do not be so loud about it. Because more profits will allow you to quietly make more of a difference. Your role as a hired brand slinger is to deliver profits back to the shareholders. You can certainly hire refugees over the next 5 years. But watch out for inflaming the die-hard 25% of people who voted for Trump. Same goes for brands on the right hand side now facing boycotts. 

Also, if you have such a brand purpose, you should understand profits allow you to have even more of a purpose and for even longer. Benneton was an outspoken in shocking ways in the 1980’s. Very purpose driven, loud and in your face stance. They are no longer around. They no longer have a voice.


2017 is becoming the year of the boycott.

If you love the anti-Trump sentiment, you likely hated what Uber did with airports on the weekend, driving past the Taxi driver protest and on top of it, charging surge prices . If you are on the left, you likely also hated the Chick Fil A making statement against marriage equality about 3-4 years ago. Maybe you have not eaten there since. I believe that brand mistake will stick with them forever. You just sell chicken, you are not my moral compass. Arguably, this could stick with Starbucks forever. These brands are now forcing consumers to make personal brand choices based on politics. The left is boycotting brands on the right and the right is boycotting brands on the right. Anyone who meets Trump gets trashed with a new hash-tag. Anyone manufacturer, big or small, who gets called out by a Trump tweet, truly lives in fear. I saw a brand announce they were building a manufacturing site in the US, they were then praised by Trump and then boycotted by the left. Wait a second, you are boycotting because they are creating US jobs?  Wow.

The best numbers out there, is about 27% voted one side and 25% voted the other way. Still, 48% refused to vote. That means 27% and 25% of your employees vote one way or the other. If you motivated 27%, you de-motivated the 25%. And you likely annoyed the 48%. Are you now going to ask political questions in the job interviews?  That would be scary.

Trump’s approval rating is 45%. You can either read that as the lowest approval rating for the first week of a President, or you can read that as only 1% less than voted for him 8 weeks ago. This is a very crazed and divided marketplace. Someone today told me they really respect Starbucks for this stance. However, when I pressed them if it would make them drink more coffee, they said they already boycott Starbucks for something they did 2 years ago. So this is the crazy type of consumer a brand must deal with in 2017.

Be careful. Be quiet. Pick your spots.

I am sure there will be people who tell me they love what one of these brands are doing, but hate what the other brand is doing. You are only proving my point. You will not hear my political views. It does not mean they are not as strong as yours.  It just means I am careful.

If you like what Starbucks did, you better start drinking more coffee. Fast.