Political Activism and Consumer Engagement


An OP Ed from Priya Ramanathan & Komal Ashfaq of the Spiegel Student Impact Team

With the current socio-political landscape of the United States, consumer activism is at its peak. Brands find themselves faced with challenges in engaging consumers. According to  Fast Company, brand-led activism demands a new kind of engagement. Consumers now expect brands to take a stance, either overtly or through company policy, and many brands have recently done so at junctions related centrally to the business.

Various brands have been in the limelight recently for their radical campaign and actions. Here are five examples of company responses in terms of consumer engagement:

Airbnb: After the announcement of Trump’s Executive Order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim countries, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky openly opposed the EO and offered free housing to refugees in the US. Airbnb was quick and very clear in their opposition of the EO, a stance they further substantiated through the Super Bowl “We Accept” ad. This campaign was successful as the message was honest and familiar to Airbnb’s previous taglines which include “Belong Anywhere” and “Welcome Home.” Airbnb was able to integrate their brand with their political stance which resonated with consumers.

Nordstrom: Soon after the presidential results, there was a call to boycott retailers that were selling Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand. Instead of taking a definitive stance, Nordstrom decided to drop the Ivanka Trump brand from its stores, citing low sales. Immediately after this decision, share prices for Nordstrom went up. This high end retailer serves as a good example of the choices that brands have to make today owing to consumer activism. Remaining neutral to stay clear of controversies is no longer an option for some brands.

Uber vs. Lyft: The two ride-sharing services took opposite stances following the executive order. While Lyft was definitive in their opposition which gained them approval from consumers, Uber failed to match up to consumer expectations. Lyft’s CEO Logan Green vocally condemned the order while announcing a donation of $1 million to ACLU.

Uber, on the other hand, lost almost 200,000 users after the #deleteUber started trending on Twitter. Consumer activists felt Uber was attempting to benefit from protests happening across the country. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick taking a seat on Trump’s business advisory council further aggravated the situation. Since then, Kalanick has not only resigned from the council, but also announced the creation of a $3 million legal defense fund for drivers. Other brands can learn from this comparison between Lyft and Uber. While one reacted at a timely manner by taking honest actions, the other’s actions were deemed too little too late.

Starbucks: While Uber was embroiled in controversy due to its perceived lack of support for the protestors, Starbucks had to face #boycottStarbucks after they announced they’ll be hiring 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years. Critics of the plan were of the view that Starbucks should hire unemployed Americans rather than refugees from other countries. Starbucks found themselves in a middle of a controversy despite having taken a stance. Brands need to prepare themselves for these situations when taking a stand on any movement.

What we can learn: Consumer expectations have changed, which means brands need to be more “human” and honest. Gone are the days of staying quiet and complicit as consumers demand definitive stances. If not, they would much rather take their business elsewhere to a company that shares their narrative and perspectives.

We saw this trend especially during this year’s Super Bowl ads, where many brands came up with messages that had political undertones. This is monumental considering the importance Super Bowl ads typically hold for both brands and consumers. As we learned in our negative word-of-mouth study, brands have a unique opportunity to review negative sentiments and invite customers to re-experience the value of a brand.