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Power To The People: Consumer Activism and Boycotters Vs Buycotters

Sex, politics, money. We tend to be hardwired to politely skirt around these topics at dinner parties, but how does the eCommerce landscape hold up? Desirability and pricing are arguably at the forefront of a company’s consciousness, but it’s politics that are increasingly on the table in terms of the modern brand. Today’s addition to our Ethical eCommerce series will look to explore the rise of Consumer Activism, and what this means for today’s online retailers.

crowd of people with hands raised

Earlier in this series, we explored the growth in conscious consumerism; individuals putting more of their time, attention and resources into exploring the impact of the companies that they purchased from, and making decisions based on ethical matters of high personal importance. Consumer activism is another form of decisive economic action, but tends to be more organised, with larger collectives, as opposed to the individual, involved. Opinions are deliberately amplified to reach wider public audiences, and messages are intended to spread and influence, strengthening the cause in question.

Tactics can involve boycotts, petitioning, media activism and rallying interest groups together. The modern consumer, and especially the modern online consumer is more empowered than they have ever been. People tend to talk about the products and brands that they’ve had interaction with via the same medium that enabled their purchase or experience in the first instance; the internet. Social media is an essentially neutral tool; it can be wielded to spread disappointment, anger and distrust, or to shower praise, loyalty and love on a brand.

Pleasure Or Pain

This is an important point to remember; consumer activism can be a positive or negative force in terms of the impact they bring to a retailer. Within the industry, reference is often made to boycotters vs buycotters; those who will actively avoid purchasing to make a political or ethical point, vs those who will proactively encourage increased purchases from a brand they see as worthy of reward for their positive impact or held values.

Boycotts are nothing new. Although the phrase itself was not coined until 1880, the practice dates back to at least the 1790s, when those supporting the abolition of the slave trade in Britain promoted the boycotting sugar from exploitative plantations. Consumer activism is amplified and empowered by increased communication enabled by today’s better-connected world and omnipresent social media. This means that modern boycotts have the potential to feel more ubiquitous and impactful.

The Battle Of The Wallets

While boycotts themselves might appear to be on the rise, easier to promote and better articulated, the findings of a recent Weber Shandwick report “The Battle of The Wallets” uncovered something interesting; buycotts (consumer activism intended to reward a company for doing the right thing and show approval via economic investment) are on the rise and appear to be gaining momentum to overtake the prevalence of boycotts.

Support, it seems, trumps protest. Within the sample interviewed for the report, 83% of consumer activists agreed that it was more important than ever to show support for companies by buying from them vs. participating in boycotts (59%).

The Future of Online Consumer Activism

What does this mean for online brands today and in the future? Firstly, that they would do well to pay attention to this trend and gain a good understanding of activists’ motivating factors – buycotters skew slightly younger (median age of 43 vs. 46 for boycotters) meaning it looks set to be something that becomes the norm of the future. Four out of 10 (41%) buycotters we surveyed belong to the Millennial and oldest Gen Z generations (born 1981 to 1999), vs. 33% of boycotters, while Boomers (born 1964 and earlier) make up a larger share of the boycotter segment (40% vs. 30% of BUYcotters). If this generational pattern continues, buycotters will surpass boycotters in years to come.

It’s also important for eCommerce brands to recognise that negative consumer activist actions can be targeted to hit them in their own front yard; online. Anti-brand sites are an increasingly common tactic employed by highly motivated and deeply negative detractors of a brand. With the technical knowledge, SEO and design skills to produce sites which can often appear fairly convincing and polished, these hate sites can sometimes show up in the top ten search results when a corporate brand is searched for on major search engines. Another tactic employed is “typo-squatting” which seeks to to steal traffic originally directed to the targeted brand. For example, Untied.com, which targets United Airlines (United.com). mi2g Intelligence Unit reports that “There are currently over 10,500 hate sites against major global brands on the Internet. This compares to 1,900 hate sites at the end of 2000, 550 hate sites at the end of 1997, and just one hate site in 1995.”

A Constant State Of Balance

women at a protest with a microphone

Taking a definite stance on polarising political opinions may feel like a risky tactic for brands looking to maximise their appeal, but this is where a true understanding of your market segment can come into play and help you wield a real advantage. Nike courted controversy with their recent ad campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who started a highly visible protest movement, kneeling during the US national anthem to highlight the issue of racial violence. His actions were deeply divisive in America, but Nike knew that 78% of its customers like brands to “take a stand.” This is well above the national average of 68%, suggesting that the move would play well with the demographic that the brand was courting and looking to retain.

In the constant game of ethical swings and roundabouts, Nike came under fire a few short months later after it emerged that they paused the contracts of its star sponsored athletes during pregnancy and maternity leave, effectively penalising them for having their babies. With pressure immediately mounting online, the response needed to be swift and definitive; “We recognized that there was inconsistency in our approach across different sports and in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports so that no female athlete is penalized financially for pregnancy.” Their direct competitor Asics were of course ready to loudly promote their policy to pay its sponsored athletes in full during pregnancy and after childbirth.

The question “is consumer activism something to be feared” is largely irrelevant in this day and age. It’s been around for hundreds of years and certainly isn’t going anywhere. The rise of empowered, connected and increasingly polarised consumers will only continue to amplify the effect and impact of these kinds of actions, but it should be remembered that research shows the majority of shoppers are looking to “catch a brand being good” and reward that behaviour with increased purchasing, chasing ethical brownie points and their own feel-good factor at having invested in something positive and ethically sound.

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