By launching its‘‘Just Do It’’ campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick this week, Nike enthusiastically jumped into a marketing controversy. Others companies have done the same — willingly taking on divisive issues, and the bottom-line risks that come with them. But more frequently, businesses are caught up in political turbulence, often because they fail to anticipate the intensity of social media-driven consumer reaction to an advertising campaign or policy change.
The outdoor retailer got political last year with a campaign against President Trump’s move to dramatically shrink two Utah national monuments. On the day of Trump’s announcement, the California-based retailer replaced its usual website home page last with a black screen and stark message: ‘‘The President Stole Your Land.’’ The company also filed a lawsuit to block the planned reduction to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. The move sparked a furious response from Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who accused the company of lying. But the campaign was in keeping with Patagonia’s longtime environmental advocacy. The company had lobbied hard for the designation of Bears Ears, created by Barack Obama in 2016. Other outdoor retailers including The North Face, Keen, Black Diamond, and REI also protested Trump’s plan on social media, but Patagonia was the only one to file a lawsuit.
Delta Airlines was one of many companies that made policy changes in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shootings in Parkland, Fla., but it faced the most notable retaliation. The airline stopped offering fare discounts to NRA members after the massacre, a decision the company said was an effort to remove itself from the debate, not take sides. Still, Georgia state lawmakers swiftly punished the Atlanta-based company by killing a proposed tax break on fuel. It was a stunning and risky rebuke to one of George’s largest private employers. Delta stood by its decision, and in March, the company donated three round-trip charter flights that allowed hundreds of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students to participate in protests against gun violence in Washington.
Citigroup became the first bank to announce policy changes after the Parkland massacre, announcing it would require its clients and business customers not to sell a gun to anyone who hasn’t passed a background check or anyone under the age of 21. The bank also will not allow its customers to sell what are known as bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. Other financial industry players followed with their own measures, including Bank of America, which cut off financing to companies that make AR-style guns. The Republican chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, sent letters of protest accusing both banks of trying to usurp the role of policy makers. Retailers including Walmart Inc., Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kroger Co., and L.L. Bean also responded to the shooting with measures tightening their restrictions on gun sales.
Starbucks faced a backlash three years ago when it encouraged employees to write ‘‘Race Together’’ on its coffee cups to encourage a national conversation on race amid protests over police killings of black men. The initiative was in line with the Seattle-based company’s efforts to project a progressive image, but social media users ridiculed it as a stunt to drive up sales. Then-CEO Howard Schultz defended the campaign as part of a broader push that included investing in underserved communities and striving to diversify its workforce. Starbucks again became embroiled in racial issues earlier this year over the arrest of two black men at one of its stores in Philadelphia. CEO Kevin Johnson moved swiftly to quell the uproar, meeting personally with the two men and closing most of its US stores for an afternoon in May to conduct anti-bias training.
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, at the time one of only four African-Americans leading a Fortune 500 company, was the first to resign from Trump’s business councils last summer over the president’s remarks on the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Va. The president lashed out immediately, criticizing Frazier on Twitter over drug pricing. Some business leaders quickly followed Frazier’s lead, including the CEOs of Under Armour and Intel. Others, including the heads of Walmart and Johnson & Johnson, publicly condemned Trump’s remarks but initially resisted pressure to leave the councils. Within days, however, the ballooning uproar pushed the companies to shift course, and the panels fell apart.
Shortly after Trump took office in 2017, then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit Trump’s council of business leaders after an outcry from Uber customers and employees who were upset about the administration’s travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries. Other Silicon Valley giants also took a strong stand against the ban in ads, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, eBay, Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter. Through ads, public statements and court filings, CEOs spoke out about the reliance of high tech on immigrants. Tech companies also spoke out forcefully against the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some people brought to the company illegally as children to stay.
BANK OF AMERICA
As the largest North Carolina-based company, Bank of America found itself squarely in the middle of the heated debate over a state law that required transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings. The bill prompted businesses, sporting events, conventions, and entertainers pull out of the state in a yearlong economic backlash. Bank of America was among the leading critics of the bill, saying it was bad for business. The bank then supported a compromise bill last year that removed the requirement but also made clear that only state legislators — not local government or school officials — can make rules for public restrooms from now on.
Nordstrom incurred Trump’s wrath last year when it stopped selling daughter Ivanka’s clothing and accessories. The move came amid a social media campaign called ‘‘Grab Your Wallet,’’ urging a boycott of stores that stocked Ivanka or Donald Trump products. But Nordstrom said its decision was based on the sales performance of the first daughter’s brand. Other retailers have attempted a delicate balance when it comes to the Ivanka Trump brand, with some scaling back on the products or removing them from their online sites. In July, Ivanka Trump said she would shut down the brand, and last month its website went dark.
Several companies have been pulled into controversy by Trump himself. Most recently, Harley-Davidson drew the president’s ire when it announced plans to move production of motorcycles sold in Europe to facilities outside the United States, citing tariffs imposed by the European Union to retaliate for tariffs Trump imposed on a host of EU products. Trump said last month that his administration is courting other motorcycle companies that want to move to the United States.