After every mass shooting in the U.S., activists press for legislation on gun control. And the NRA pushes back. But there is another, nonlegislative avenue for activists to pursue: boycotts against companies with ties to the gun industry or the NRA.
These boycotts appeared to gain more traction than normal after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Several retailers announced restrictions on gun sales at their stores, and other companies announced that they would no longer offer discounts to NRA members.
Two professors at the Kellogg School of Management, Brayden King and Tim Calkins, recently sat down to explore this strategy. King, a professor of management and organizations, has researched what makes boycotts effective. Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing, focuses on how companies build strong, profitable brands.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brayden King: In my research, I was interested in explaining why boycotts were successful despite the fact that consumers were not always on board. In the short term at least, there didn’t seem to be a big dip in sales revenue in response to most boycotts. Yet, 25% of boycotts that receive some national media attention led to a form of public concession from the company.
We’ve been able to show that fear of reputational damage is a main mechanism through which boycotts are effective. Companies that have experienced a decline in the recent past in their prestige tend to be the companies that are most likely to concede in some way.
Tim Calkins: Yes, when I was working in brand management at Kraft Foods, we would occasionally experience consumer boycotts. But we never saw the sales move in a meaningful way. At the same time, though, they totally generated attention and news, and they had a big impact from a PR perspective and a perception perspective. That’s really where they hit home.
King: One of the main questions I get asked is, what is the value of the reputation that these executives want to protect?
Part of the rationale is that when companies experience a decline in their reputation, reputation becomes more salient. They’re focused on it in a way that they haven’t been in the past. There are also the secondary effects. Companies that have developed bad reputations are much more likely to get sued, are much more likely to face additional regulatory monitoring.
Calkins: And social media changes the landscape pretty dramatically. Back in the day, people would have to walk around with a petition to get a boycott going.
King: Right. Activist groups realize that the main lever they have for influencing companies is creating a media splash. Social media has made it less important to have an organization with a professional public relations team, because now anybody can organize a boycott campaign by going onto Twitter, Facebook, Reddit. You create a viral tweet about boycotting Walmart and the next day it’s on CNN.
Calkins: The world of transparency we’re in combined with the world of social media means brands have to be very careful about what they’re doing, really scrutinize things in a way they never used to. All of a sudden, they’ve got a problem because of something they never even knew they were doing. That certainly was the case with the NRA boycotts. I think if you were to ask a lot of these executives at these companies, “Do you offer special deals to the NRA?” most of them would have said, “No, we don’t have a partnership with the NRA.”
It’s incredibly difficult right now to figure out how to respond. You have to move so quickly, but if you’re not careful, you’ll just make the problem bigger with a tone-deaf response.
King: I think that a lot of the communications professionals are genuinely perplexed about the best way to respond to many of these events. You’re talking about communications professionals who were trained in a different era, before social media. Another part of the challenge is that the political environment has never been as polarized or unpredictable. Companies recognize that this is happening but they’re not sure how to deal with it. I think most of them are just hoping that somehow the earthquake doesn’t happen in their backyard.
With the NRA boycotts, the political environment created a sense of urgency for these companies. They responded quickly this time as compared to maybe three or four years ago, when they didn’t respond, even though the NRA took the same position.
Calkins: It makes you realize, too, how complicated all this is. I feel bad for the executives of Delta Airlines. Delta didn’t say they were going to punish the NRA when they stopped offering discounts for NRA members. They weren’t saying, “Oh, we don’t want people from the NRA on our planes, or we’re going to take away your frequent flier miles.” They said, you know, we’re not going to give you a special deal because we don’t want to be perceived as leaning in that direction. And they get slammed for that.
Companies are going to try to stay, by and large, as impartial as they can. The hard part is that it can be really hard these days to stay in the center of the road. The whole experience, I think, has a lot of senior executives very nervous.
King: I think of the response to partnerships like Delta’s as very similar to the way companies were previously targeted for supply-chain issues. It’s just that your supply chain now includes all the various ways in which you’re extending your brand.
It’s fairly common that major companies get boycotted due to something that an affiliate, a partner, is doing, not something that they’re doing. This was Nike’s complaint when they were the target of a boycott over the labor practices of their overseas suppliers. They would say, “It’s not us. It’s somebody else.” But activists are very smart about going after the company that will create the most attention.
Calkins: I think there are three things that companies should be doing proactively to avoid being in this situation.
First, they need a process and approach to responding to comments. The question is, who’s answering the phone? Although today the question is, who’s on Twitter?
The second thing is companies need to really scrutinize all of their partnerships, all of their arrangements. It’s important to make sure they clean up their arrangements as quickly as possible.
The third thing is that companies need to be very clear about what causes they’ll get involved in. By and large, they want to stay in the center, and for most companies there’s just no reason to take a stand one way or the other on a lot of issues. But there are those issues where they do want to take a stand.
Patagonia, for example, is very far out in front on environmental issues. They’ve said, “We’re going to go right up against the administration, we’re going to do it consistently, and overtly, and that’s what we stand for.” But, it’s interesting that you don’t see them out in front on other issues, like trade. Nobody looks to Patagonia to be a leader on tariffs.
This article has previously been published in Kellogg Insight. It has been syndicated with permission of the Kellogg School of Management.