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Just Do It. Or Don’t Do It? Partnering with Boycotted Brands

By Chris Olsen

The first highly publicized boycott of a brand occurred 50 years ago when more than 14 million Americans boycotted Delano grapes. It was the result of Cesar Chavez and the organization known today as the United Farm Workers of America leading Filipino farm workers in California to walk off the job in protest of receiving less than the federal minimum wage.

Consumer activism continues to be a powerful tool for change, and engaged citizens are boycotting brands more than ever. According to Fortune, between 1990 and 2007, the six biggest U.S. newspapers made mention of just over 200 boycotts. In the connected age, impassioned citizens have taken to social media to campaign against (and for) causes that may not have gained as much exposure a decade ago. Take, for example, the 2017 #GrabYourWallet campaign, which led to boycotts of more than 50 companies in just a few months.

But what if a brand being boycotted is one you revere? What if the brand sponsored your event, team or venue? What if the brand solved a problem for your company or enhanced guest experience? Will partnering with that brand have an impact on your brand?

Nike’s “Dream Crazy” ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is a powerful example of standing up for something and the dissidence it can cause. But the company is no stranger to controversy. Most recently, the University of Washington ended a 20-year partnership with Nike. A week later a New York Times article about Nike brought to light how toxic the culture of the company had become for women. While the university isn’t sharing whether Nike’s business practices had anything to do with its decision, many other organizations are drawing the line at partnering with a company that has a history of mistreating its female workers.

Today we expect brands to take a social and political position. Sometimes that position is unpopular. When evaluating your business’ association with a boycotted brand, here are some key considerations:

Why did you partner with this brand in the first place?

There are many lucrative reasons to partner with a brand. In addition to financial and in-kind support, have you clearly identified your goals for a partnership? Are you partnering with brands you respect and whose business practices align with your own? Has your leadership determined which brands share the organization’s values? Are they prepared to defend those decisions when a partner brand is embroiled in a boycott?

The bottom line: If you are clear about what your organization stands for, the brands you are willing to stand up for will also be clear.

How does this brand handle a crisis?

A sponsor might be perfectly aligned with your company values and something may occur that changes the public’s perception of that brand. Have you researched the circumstances surrounding the boycott thoroughly and done your due diligence? Did the brand acknowledge the issue right away and communicate openly with stakeholders? Is it being transparent? Is it taking responsibility and providing details about how the company intends to address it?

The bottom line: Carefully consider whether the situation is being handled in a way that aligns with how you do (or want to do) business.

What is your company’s tipping point?

No brand is perfect. Companies are led and run by people, and people make mistakes. Has your leadership team engaged in dialogue about specific behaviors, issues or business practices your company is not willing to overlook? What is it that a brand or brand spokesperson could do that would result in ending the relationship? Would you be willing to address the situation directly with your brand partner?

The bottom line: Identifying what your boundaries are will enable you to identify when they’ve been crossed and when it’s time to take action.

What do you stand to lose?

When done right, sponsorships offer unique marketing opportunities and provide significant and often essential support for properties, programs and events. Have you weighed the pros of cutting ties with a brand that has been a valuable partner? Do you fully understand what you have to lose by ending the partnership? Are you certain that aligning with a brand on a divisive issue is worth the risk?

The bottom line: After all is said and done, when partnering with a boycotted brand, you’ve got to decide if the rewards outweigh the potential risks.

About the author: Chris Olsen is a former broadcast media marketer and brand journalist who leverages her behind-the-scenes media expertise as a marketing and communications consultant to nonprofits and mid-sized organizations. A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris helps Caravel clients understand, articulate, illustrate and elevate their brand and sales stories.