Consumer activism – is it becoming more effective?

A spate of recent research – and a prominent Australian case study – are suggesting that there may be an increase in the effectiveness of consumer activism with some implications for corporate reputations.

The Australian case study, Coopers and the Bible Society, is fascinating because it highlights how the more specialised your brand is the more vulnerable you may be. Coopers make great beer, donates lots of money to the conservative parties and also makes generous contributions to the Bible Society – which is apparently not in favour of gay marriage. A special Coopers Bible Society beer (they apparently aren’t teetotal) was launched by a Liberal MP who just happened to be a former IPA (the lobby group not Indian Pale Ale) person.

All well and good but Coopers is a brewer which might be regarded as Australia’s biggest craft brewer – not as big as the majors but a listed company with large sales and an almost impregnable share register which suggests its current corporate position is secure. Consumers of Coopers brands – particularly Coopers Red – are probably neither rednecks nor overtly religious. Many of them may well be gay. So the upshot of it all – the brewery canned the 10,000 Bible Society cases promotion and joined other companies in supporting marriage equality – is perhaps unsurprising.

So – one instant success for consumer activism aided by ham-fisted promotion by the target company. A Global Strategy Group study, which Tony Jaques told the blog about, provides a US perspective. The study found that analysis of SuperBowl ads with a political theme scored a “large uptick in online conversations (predominantly positive) around their brand.” The blog noted that one of the brands was Budweiser which drew attention to its immigrant heritage. The blog has to confess that if it had to choose between the Bible Society booze and Budweiser it would go for the Coopers which says something about consumer activism and brands – the response depends a bit on the quality of the product.

Around the same time the Weber Shandwick Group did some research which showed that 84% of Americans believe business has a responsibility to encourage social change. Like the Global Strategy Group research this could be significant but the blog tends to agree with Tony Jaques that both results are actually equivocal for a variety of reasons – the main ones being how does it translate into behaviour and what are respondents actually supporting?

A more substantial study was from the blog’s old friends at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. The Centre published a paper – The consumer as climate activist – and suggested it be considered in the light of recent consumer boycotts: Uber and the protest against its apparent support for Trump’s travel ban; Nordstrom pulling Ivanka Trump merchandise from their stores following a 66% drop in the stuff’s sales; and the impact of various corporate boycotts on States over their transgender bathroom legislation.

For those who don’t know, the transgender bathroom legislation campaign is just the latest in a long series of conservative scare campaigns along with the need to prevent the introduction of sharia law in the US; ‘the war on Christmas” and assorted other irrelevancies. Well, they’re not that irrelevant of course, because they are always playing in a newspaper near you in Australia soon after their US debuts. As for Nordstrom the blog knows little about retailing and suffers panic attacks if it is forced to go into any large store other than bookshops. Nevertheless, it has visited Nordstrom and even it could see that the place was rather up market and elegant – the sort of setting which would be hardly right for some Trump bling.

The CCCC says: “We found that Americans are more likely to engage in consumer activism than political activism to combat global warming, and it’s on the rise. Yet most Americans don’t realize that consumer activism can influence companies. And even those that do seek to influence companies are more likely to express their concerns via their individual purchasing decisions, rather than by speaking out publicly about the corporate practices they oppose. Other studies have found, however, that bad publicity often has a greater impact on corporate behavior than decreased sales. Together, these results suggest that climate change consumer activists can be most effective by publicly communicating their concerns about corporate behavior as part of boycott or buycott campaigns.”

The study shows that consumer activism on global warming is relatively common in the US and has increased in the past two years with one in five people rewarding and punishing companies through purchasing decisions and a third buying products which reduce global warming. The article looks at examples of effective consumer activism campaigns since 2000. It finds that most Americans do not realise how effective consumer activism can be or how it can influence companies more powerfully by spreading information about objectionable corporate practices rather than  “simply purchasing more climate-friendly products.”

This reputational aspect is discussed in a recent newsletter item from Tony Jaques about whether reputation campaigns actually improve reputation. The blog has a great case study, sadly confidential, where a company actually made more people aware of what it was up to – with consequent increase in reputational damage – through a reputation campaign. Tony quotes the old adage about corporate advertising – it’s like wetting yourself in a dark suit. It briefly gives you a warm feeling…but no-one notices.

The blog tends to think that corporate reputation campaign instigators should heed the lessons from social marketing – it is programs not campaigns which work best.