Boycotting businesses to make a political statement is nothing new. From those who refused to buy German cars after World War II, to activists shaming Nestle for pushing baby formula on poor populations that didn’t even have proper water to mix it with, the boycott list has been a long and evolving one.
But in this election cycle, businesses have become an entirely new frontier in political activism: They’re battlegrounds where ideological sides leverage a brand to make a statement.
From Target being in the bull’s-eye of both the support and the backlash of its transgender bathroom stance, to controversy surrounding Ivanka Trump’s QVC-ing of the White House by selling the looks she wears at political appearances, brands find themselves at the center of this warfare like never been before. In the past week, we’ve seen a national controversy erupt around New Balance after an executive tweeted in praise of Donald Trump’s stance on trade deals that could keep shoe manufacturing local.
There was an immediate consumer backlash among those who oppose Trump. But then neo-Nazis stepped in to defend the brand, saying New Balance is the sneaker of white people. PR chaos has ensued, with competitors now offering free sneakers to those who say they’ve dumped a pair of New Balance.
It wasn’t the only footwear controversy this month. Shoes.com dropped Ivanka’s line, supposedly due to lack of sales, pressure mounted for Zappos to do the same, and then there was a backlash against the backlash by Trump supporters to boycott those shopping platforms.
Starbucks is also dealing with the post-election fallout, this time not because of the design of their holiday cup, but because a white man, angry that he had not received his latte fast enough, yelled at the black barista, saying he voted for Trump and she was garbage. Trump supporters have come to this man’s defense, and a movement erupted on Twitter (#TrumpCup) with consumers encouraging others to say their name is Trump when they place a drink order.
But it’s not just consumer brands trying to navigate these tense times. The American Institute of Architects, a 159-year-old professional association with 89,000 members, issued a statement saying that it’s “committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure.”
The AIA’s membership raged against this public comment, saying architecture should be used for the common good rather than building physical or metaphorical walls to keep people out. The result: AIA issued no less than three apologies.
But some businesses and organizations are deliberately stepping into the discussion as they, too, recognize this new front line for social change. The cast of “Hamilton” appealed to Vice President-elect Pence, when he was in their audience over the weekend, to “uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.” The result was — you guessed it — a call for a boycott. In Massachusetts, the Alliance for Business Leadership is bringing a strong, organized business voice to advance a progressive public policy agenda in the state and beyond. Venture-capital and tech firms are saying they will fight against changes to the H-1B visa program that allows foreign graduate-level workers to fill specific jobs that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields such as IT, finance, accounting, architecture, engineering, mathematics, science, and medicine, for example. Big brands (Patagonia comes to mind) are using corporate social responsibility platforms to drive action. And some of the hottest MBA programs now have marketing platforms encouraging students to go into business for the social good.
Standing in the center of these minefields are today’s business leaders, who must balance their personal passions with their business models, which are increasingly intertwined. For them, there are only two options: Stand still until the war is over, or be brave and choose a path that makes a difference. All press isn’t necessarily good press, and neither choice is easy. But these are not easy times.
Beth Monaghan is the CEO and Tina Cassidy is executive vice president at InkHouse, a Waltham-based public relations firm.