#6: Why Do Most Boycotts Fail?

The Goya brand has triggered calls to boycott - but how much will they impact the average consumer?

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🥫 Why Do Most Boycotts Fail?

It’s grocery shopping week at my apartment; in many new ways, not much has changed in San Francisco. Grocery stores still require masks. They still have capacity limits. They still sanitize the carts.

There was still something unique about my experience this week, though.

Something that had nothing to do with quarantine.

Something that hadn’t been on my mind while grocery shopping in years.

I was morally conflicted around which beans to buy.

Most weeks, it was simple. I didn’t think twice about spending more than a dollar on black beans. But it all changed this week. With new revelations around the brand’s CEO Robert Unanue praising the current President at a July roundtable, Goya was no longer the easy option.

The social media-led Goya boycott that followed these comments brought new questions to mind: Do I buy Goya? Do I risk being seen buying Goya? Do I actually care this much about it? Is buying a widely criticized consumer brand actually an egregious act? Can I morally watch Hamilton all weekend and distance myself from Lin-Manuel Miranda?

This led to me a new question: Does every consumer feel this conflicted? When are boycotts of widely purchased goods actually effective?

(Note: The following piece is not an endorsement of any particular brand or critique of boycotts - just some objective psychological analysis of boycotts in general.)

What is the purpose of a boycott?

Let’s zoom out: Most of us know what a boycott is. According to its definition on Wikipedia: The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behavior.

For marketers, a traditional boycott is a double-edged sword.

Of course, the stress that a national boycott brings to PR and marketing teams is anathema to normal schedule.

In other ways, boycotts are helpful to marketers - when a team’s goal is to identify, anticipate and satisfy customers needs, a boycott is basically the most tangible way to identify a void.

Alter the objectionable behavior - and your marketing will be fine.

But marketers might also naturally benefit from consumer psychology - effective boycotts are exhausting, inconvenient, and very long.

The seminal Montgomery Bus Boycott of the Civil Rights Movement lasted 381 days before the city passed an ordinance authorizing black bus passengers to sit where they wanted on buses.

Even on top of that, many boycotts don’t budge companies - Goya’s boycott has led to no immediate apology from the CEO.

How often do we want to endure boycotts that don’t alter the objectionable behavior in the first place?

When do consumers actually follow through on boycotts?

This brings me to some fascinating psychology around consumer motivations for boycotts, largely supported by research done from Jill Gabrielle Klein, N. Craig Smith, and Andrew through the London Business School Centre for Marketing.

The team ran a study around a boycott for a European-based multinational firm (name disguised) that sells consumer food products.

The firm had planned two factory closings that triggered a strong reaction from consumers. The boycotts began. Market share fell 11 percent.

But the study itself led to some weird findings: 95% of the respondents surveyed had heard about the closing. 81% of them disapproved of the factory closings and called it an egregious act. Only 19% were currently boycotting the product.

So what psychologically separates the boycotters from the disapprovers?

The team found four factors that predicted boycott participation:

  • Desire for Difference: The set of perceived benefits from boycotting. How likelihood is the boycott to succeed?

  • Scope for Self-Enhancement: The set of psychological variables from boycotting. How likely is the boycotter going to feel guilty at consuming a boycotted product? What is the potential opportunity to increase self-esteem or social status through association with the boycott?

  • Counterarguments: The belief that harm might result from the boycott. Which stakeholders may actually be harmed through a boycott?

  • Constrained Consumption Costs: The direct utility sacrifice entailed by a consumer’s boycott decision. Is the boycotter a heavy user of the product? How large of a role does the product play in their life?

The flag is that almost none of these reasons will stop people from thinking the brand’s action may have been egregious - but they will directly impact someone’s desire to boycott. The intention-action gap is high.

Take a look at the NFL, for example. In all the criticism it has gotten from Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling and then subsequent political alignment with owners and the current President, few NFL boycotts have succeeded in shutting down the league or altering any behavior.

Constrained Consumption Costs play a role here - the NFL is simply a utility in too many lives for it to scale.

Facebook is another tricky example - while many of us believe that some of the company’s actions are vile and even regularly egregious, a lot of us continue to use Facebook.

Maybe we have little faith in minds changing? Don’t necessarily see deleting Facebook as a self-esteem boost? Find it to be too much of a utility?

Counterarguments have often come up with Goya - is it worth boycotting for bodega owners who rely on Goya sales? That might be enough to make some question the boycott altogether.

Finally, there is another psychological concept not covered by the marketing research above - the concept of single-attribute non-compensatory choice.

In a non-compensatory decision making process, one can apply simple heuristics to quickly evaluate the alternatives with minimal effort. In this case, boycotters apply the outrage around political alignment of the CEO to reject the brand altogether.

If just one aspect of the brand was considered in making a permanent rejection decision, is that enough? Is that really what matters, outside of taste and any goodwill from the brand?

All interesting questions to consider - but there’s one thing that’s for sure: There are many reasons one could find an act egregious yet find oneself psychologically unwilling to pull the trigger on a boycott.

For planning an effective boycott, this research could even serve as a playbook - predict the mind of the average consumer and you will have them as putty in your hands.

As a caveat, firms should not assume that non-boycotters are ultimately not unaffected by the boycott. Strong disapproval of the company’s practice and overall brand image is something that can bleed a brand image deeply over time - and even impact its somatic markers.

The Goya boycott does have legs and some large celebrity following - but a sample size of the average human could tell a whole different story.

(For the people keeping score at home, I didn’t ultimately buy Goya. Trader Joe’s Cuban Style Black Beans for the win!)

🏆 Meld Musings

  • I’ve shared Nat’s blog here before but his piece around starting and monetizing a blog is a worthy read. So many good gems.

  • Robots are soon to write our tweets! If you haven’t yet heard about GPT-3, check out what Open AI is building to soon generate copy for us lazy humans.

  • Facebook has a history of using behavioral economics in their feed - newest one is their prompt to get you to fill out the census 🤔

  • I haven’t posted much about Snapchat but they are soon releasing Snap Minis - VC Turner Novak has a great thread on how these could revolutionize marketing.

  • Bonus: The TikTok that has had me laughing since last Thursday.

Until next time,


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