Boycott Trump? What for?

March 16, 2017

A company takes a position that you don’t agree with. Like relocating employees or using child labour. Your next step seems obvious: you boycott. If the company loses clients, it will change its practices, right? Buying is voting, after all. When it comes to politics, should we refuse to buy from those we didn’t vote for?

According to those who organize them, boycotts have changed the course of history. The Boston Tea Party certainly changed British history, seeing that it led to the founding of the United States. The Montgomery bus boycott by the African American community crystallized the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. A boycott also contributed to the demise of apartheid in South Africa…

So when it comes to showing your opposition to the new U.S. President, the solution seems obvious: boycott! But do boycotts actually make a difference? Will the Trump boycott work? It’s doubtful.

Calling for a boycott will rarely be successful if it’s about a divisive subject. When a brand supports gay marriage or opposes gun control, some will boycott, while others will increase their support. Politics is a polarizing subject. For each person who is disgusted by the President’s beliefs, there’s another who will defend his agenda. Boycotting Trump brands is a show of resistance, but it’s also a way of doubling the support of those who love the reality-star-turned-politician. It’s very common to see anti-boycott demonstrations and it’s already happening with Trump. For example, in response to the boycott of the Ivanka Trump Collection, presidential counselor (and inventor of the term, “alternative facts”) Kellyanne Conway encouraged Americans to buy the brand during an appearance on Fox & Friends. Sales more than tripled that same day!

In addition to achieving a critical mass, a boycott must also lead to action. In the case of the President, very few Americans are regular clients of Trump Towers… so what is there to boycott? One democratic coalition has offered a solution: the Boycott Trump app lists over 250 companies and people who are directly connected to the White House chief.

Some companies have major business ties or are connected to Trump through intermediary companies, without necessarily being members of Trump Nation. His name doesn’t always appear on the facade in big gold letters. Other times, however, the link is clear. As is the case with the Ivanka Trump Collection, which has been targeted by the #grabyourwallet campaign. Threatened with boycotts, many retailers stopped selling the First Daughter’s clothing collection, but that didn’t stop the Ivanka Trump label from posting stellar numbers in February, with a sales increase of more than 300%.

How is this possible? Protesters couldn’t fully block access to the brand. For every Nordstrom that dropped the Ivanka Trump label, there’s an Amazon that kept selling it online. For every Neiman Marcus or Marshalls, there’s a The Bay or Macy’s. When retailers step back, online sales push forward. And that’s exactly what happened—consumers went looking for the brand online, propelling the Presidential daughter’s brand to the 11th most-purchased on Lyst, which sells more than 12,000. At the end of 2016, her brand wasn’t even in the top 500.

The Trump boycott won’t be the only one to fail. Even the South African case is on shaky ground. In an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Ivo Welch, an American economist and finance academic at UCLA, explores whether boycotts are effective and explains that apartheid did not end because of boycotts. His study demonstrates that it was easy to work around the blockade. For example, South African gold was sold to a neighbour, who then sold it internationally. Ultimately, economic embargos were so easy to get around that the boycott was totally useless—as is the case with the Ivanka Trump Collection.

If few boycotts are actually organized enough to achieve their goal, are they still worth having? More than ever, yes. Notwithstanding the scant impact on immediate purchasing behaviour, boycotts do come with plenty of negative press. A brand’s reputation is at stake. Consumers have a greater and greater capacity to amplify negative campaigns, so that even the threat of a boycott will push many brands to change their practices. Fear makes brands more responsible. Even if boycotts rarely pan out in the real world, they do have the ability to make brand managers shudder—and therein lies their real power.

This article was originally published online in French on L’actualité

Image by Teresa Peeks