Retailers and brands have nearly always faced the potential threat of a consumer boycott, with crisis management plans in place to deal with the fallout of a production problem, labor issue, or social activism effort. But in the modern era, companies are being forced to come up with a new chapter, added to their standard operating procedures, that describes ways to deal with consumers on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

The new requirements come in the wake of the unprecedented behaviors of President Donald Trump. In multiple tweets and interviews, he has indicated his preferences for certain retailers and his disdain for others. Both his supporters and his detractors have responded in kind, creating an entirely new and unfamiliar situation for retailers.

By and large, companies are “darned if they do, darned if they don’t.” For example, Nordstrom was targeted by the activist group GrabYourWallet for carrying the Ivanka Trump line of products. Consumers opposed to the President and his policies were encouraged to stop shopping there, to express their discontent. When Nordstrom quietly pulled the Ivanka Trump line from its stores (claiming that the move was justified by poor sales, rather than indicating any political statement), Trump supporters responded with fury, promising never to come back, while those on the other side of the political fray made sure to visit their local stores and post their purchases on social media.

As the Nordstrom example reveals, even if a company claims to be apolitical, it can get dragged into the fray. When a member of the Bean family proclaimed her support for the President, activists recommended boycotting L.L.Bean, prompting the firm to protest that she was just one of about 50 heirs involved in the company, and her comments did not reflect any corporate policy. Even as it tried to stay out of politics though, consumers continued to attempt to make their opinions clear by avoiding the brand.

Other firms seem unafraid to take political positions though, embracing the controversy as a way to appeal to their target markets. Starbucks recognizes that its customer base tends to be somewhat more progressive. In a clear rebuke of the administration’s proposed travel ban and suspension of the nation’s refugee program, the company announced its plans to hire 10,000 refugees in the next five years. Although some potential customers might have been irked by the move, Starbucks is strongly aligning itself with the more progressive attitudes and political leanings of a majority of its customers, as well as its employees, seeking to establish itself as a defender of civil liberties and to firm up its image as a progressive company.

These challenges and choices have become especially acute for another reason: social media. Without it, the President would have less opportunity to issue controversial, unexpected announcements, such as when he complained that Nordstrom’s product line decision was an example of treating his daughter “unfairly.” Similarly, consumers’ boycotting efforts would be more limited, or at least slower, without social media. Instead, in the modern era, a president can tweet about a retailer at 3:00 a.m., and by 8:00 a.m., that company needs to have its response in place. That response is not going to please everyone, but it has no choice but to offer one. No one can stand apart from the political debate in today’s world.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. How are retailers handling Trump-branded products?
  2. If you were the CEO of one of these retailers, what would you do?

Source: Julie Creswell and Rachel Abrams, The New York Times, February 10, 2017