How HR can weather a boycott storm

One expert says 2017 will be the year of the boycott – but could your company survive one if it struck?

How HR can weather a boycott storm

Consumer boycotts are nothing new and plenty of organizations have had to endure public campaigns in the past but they’re now occurring with more frequency than ever before – here, one marketing expert explains the surge in popularity and offers advice on weathering the storm.

“I think the primary reason for the increase is basically social media,” says Marc Gordon, owner of Fourword Marketing. “Social media makes it very easy to organize a boycott but it also empowers a lot of people and makes them feel like they’re part of something, part of a cause.”

As well as making consumers feel like they’re contributing to something bigger, Gordon says boycotts also give people the feeling of power and makes them feel their voice is being heard.

“They can consciously say; ‘I’m not going to buy that product, I’m not going to shop at that store, I’m not going to deal with that company,’” he explains. “And even though it might be a drop in the ocean, it gives that person that feeling of empowerment.”

In the past few years, Sobey’s, Nestlé and TD Bank have all faced boycotts from Canadian consumers – and that goes without mentioning the long list of companies currently shunned by anti-Trump campaigners – so just what should an organisation do if they find themselves in such a situation?

“When a business gets boycotted, it’s important to do a self-assessment and ask; ‘Are these values ones that we believe in and support as an organization?’” says Gordon, pointing to the global boycott of Nike back in the 1990s as a perfect example of a company admitting its mistakes.

“A lot of people boycotted Nike because it was discovered that Nike was using child labour,” he explains. “As a result, Nike did a 180 and became an industry leader in their stance against using child labour.”

Closer to home, Sobey’s found itself at the centre of a boycott last year when a human rights tribunal ruled it had racially profiled one of its customers. The chain initially tried to appeal the decision but dropped it following further public outcry, later agreeing to roll out extensive employee training to combat racism and unconscious bias.

“Something tells me if Sobey’s had moved very, very quickly on this and said; ‘Look, we totally screwed up, we’re changing our policies, we love the community, we want to be a part of it, we’re very sorry and we’re going to change,” then I think perhaps a boycott like this would not have happened,” says Gordon.

However, while there’s little to no argument about the morality of child labour or racial profiling, some organisations may face a boycott for less straight-forward reasons.

Late last month, Starbucks made news when CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in the next five years – the promise went down well with some but #BoycottStarbucks soon became the highest trending topic on Twitter.

“There are two things that any company can do in this situation,” says Gordon. “They can say; ‘We’re wrong to do this and we should change our stance to appease the public,’ or they can say; ‘You know what, we feel good about our values and we’re going to stick to them so if there’s a portion of the population that doesn’t like it, we’re okay with that because this is who we are.’”

The coffee giant hasn’t backed down and despite Schultz’s outspoken attitude, U.S. sales continue to rise, proving boycotts aren’t always something to worry about.

“Most boycotts don’t work,” agrees Gordon. “Generally, they’re only successful when the cause is incredibly powerful – like stopping child labour.”

Gordon admits that companies might lose some business or get some bad press as a result of a boycott but usually the campaign dies out without doing too much damage – unless the firm is small and with relatively few locations.

“Don’t sweat it too much, you’re probably going to see a short-term dip in sales and then things will return to normal,” he says. “That’s usually the case.”

While their impact isn’t necessarily lasting, Gordon says employers may want to be ready to react as he predicts boycotts will only become more common over the next 12 months.

“I think 2016 it really started to take off but 2017 will be the year of the boycott,” he says. “However, I think by 2018 it’ll be extremely passé to be honest with you, I think people will just be burnt out being told all the places they can’t shop and all the things they can’t buy.”

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