Strategy Trump is spurring an unprecedented change for American companies

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The past two years have been an unending series of boycotts and counter-boycotts from the right and left.

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(Reuters)
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  • Both the right and the left are turning up the heat to pressure companies on their political values.
  • Companies need to sell values as well as products to distinguish themselves in a crowded market.
  • Americans take both politics and business very personally — and President Donald Trump is leading by example.


The past two years have seen an unending series of politically sparked boycotts and counter-boycotts.

Progressives have boycotted anything related to President Donald Trump: Trump Hotels, his daughter Ivanka's fashion line, and any retailer selling Ivanka Trump's fashion line.

Conservative-backed boycotts include Starbucks, the NFL, and, most recently, the coffee company Keurig. Both the right and the left have called for boycotts against Amazon at various points.

Why have customers been so aggressive in their insistence on holding companies accountable over the past two years — notably, the period during which Trump rose to political power?

According to experts, an increasingly competitive business environment and changing consumer expectations play a major role.

Companies are now expected to sell values in addition to products

Starbucks' programs, like hiring veterans and refugees, reveal the company's dedication to values beyond coffee. play

Starbucks' programs, like hiring veterans and refugees, reveal the company's dedication to values beyond coffee.

(Starbucks)

"These are big companies, really concerned with their strategic direction," Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell history professor who wrote "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America," told Business Insider in February, when numerous companies spoke out against Trump's executive order barring refugees from entering the country.

"They're often in competitive environments, where, Nike makes sneakers — but so do a lot of other companies," Glickman continued.

"Part of why people choose Nike has to do with a certain image people have of the company."

Corporate values are playing an increasingly large role in customers' shopping decisions. Tying a brand to certain values and political beliefs is one way to differentiate it and establish a higher-end image.

Over the past decade, startups have received funding — and mockery — by portraying themselves as saviors, a business strategy that has leaked into the business mainstream. Starbucks, for example, uses its social policies as a way to differentiate itself from everyman favorites like Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's.

In a crowded marketplace, values are expected as a way for companies to distinguish themselves.

"Companies have to be known for something, and it's not just your products and services," Chris Allieri, the founder of the communications and marketing firm Mulberry & Astor, told Business Insider. "It's who are you, what do you stand for."

Trump portrays business as both political and personal

President Donald Trump. play

President Donald Trump.

(AP)

Trump perfectly fits into this growing personalization of companies — and the expectation that brands that go against a consumer's values need to be punished.

"Donald Trump is somebody … who very much personalizes the economy in a way I've never seen a president do before," Glickman said. "That kind of leads him in the path of consumer activists, because they're kind of trying to do the same thing, for different reasons."

He continued: "A lot of times, it's very hard for consumers to see, 'How does my shopping list have a political impact?' But when Donald Trump tells you it does, it's easy for his supporters to see that — but also his critics to see that."

Often, when companies take political stances, critics will say they should "stick to business." But with companies now having advocated values that make them more marketable, customers no longer want them to stick to business — and neither does the president.

Allieri said: "We've never seen something like this — a consumer awakening, if you will."

Polarized politics leaves customers expecting companies to agree with them

Someone destroying his Keurig coffee maker. play

Someone destroying his Keurig coffee maker.

(@AngeloJohnGage)

Writing about these issues in February, it seemed as though boycotts and companies' response could be a way to produce political change. Now, however, the boycotts seem more likely to further American polarization.

Take, for example, the Keurig boycott.

On Saturday, Keurig posted on Twitter that it would no longer advertise on Sean Hannity's Fox News show. The brand had faced pressure on social media to cut advertising after Hannity interviewed Roy Moore, the Republican US Senate candidate in Alabama accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old and pursuing relationships with other teenagers when he was in his 30s.

For those on the left who wanted Keurig to cut ads, it was a clear-cut case. The right-leaning Hannity had given what they saw as an overly sympathetic interview to a man accused of sexual assault.

But for those on the right, the people planning to pressure advertisers were punishing Hannity simply for interviewing a polarizing but still newsworthy subject, a subject they were skeptical had committed wrongdoing in the first place. For these people, a Keurig boycott was seen as necessary to right a wrong. And, that led to some people throwing their Keurigs out of windows.

Keurig, which needs people across the political spectrum to purchase coffee machines, would hope to win over both — despite the two sides wanting opposite outcomes.

Brands are being forced to take sides

On Monday, Keurig's CEO, Bob Gamgort, apologized to employees.

"This gave the appearance of 'taking sides' in an emotionally charged debate that escalated on Twitter and beyond over the weekend, which was not our intent," Gamgort wrote.

He continued: "Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation that requires an overhaul of our issues response and external communications policies and the introduction of safeguards to ensure this never happens again ... The nature of social media and the internet news environment is that stories like this explode, and generally do not disappear quickly."

At the same time, customers in 2017 do increasingly expect brands to take sides, and they're willing to shop elsewhere when they do not.