Why Voting With Their Wallets May Be an Idle Consumer Threat

Well-loved brands can weather values-based storms

Image of two wallets connected by a ladder
If a brand is well-loved, customers may overlook uncomfortable truths. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

More than 80% of consumers who participated in a brand safety survey said they would reduce or stop buying a product if it advertised alongside extreme or dangerous content, which the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and Brand Safety Institute (BSI) said poses “significant financial risk to brands.”

There’s just one problem: Consumers don’t always follow through.

TAG CEO Mike Zaneis acknowledged some of the findings in its first consumer study were elementary—“You have to start somewhere”—and said the organization plans more quantitative analysis to understand actual purchasing behavior.

Whether it’s the incredibly short lifespan of online outrage or consumer blindspots for policies that don’t align with their values, if a brand is well-loved—and unmatched by its peers—in many cases, customers are perfectly happy to overlook uncomfortable truths.

Consider Equinox and SoulCycle.

When it came to light these brands are tied to a Trump supporter, calls rang out on social media for boycotts.

According to market research company YouGov, 68% of SoulCycle customers had previously said they were willing to stop buying from a brand if they disagree with its views. And yet social media monitoring firm Brandwatch said #BoycottSoulCycle has been used only 9,400 times since Aug. 6. What’s more, said Kellan Terry, senior manager of communications at Brandwatch, the conversation peaked on Aug. 7 when #BoycottEquinox received more than 10,000 mentions. It declined sharply thereafter.

Terry noted there’s no way for Brandwatch to determine who actually canceled their memberships, but it is possible to look for terms like “I’m” or “I am” to sift through mentions that might imply users are leaving—but he found only 1,000 instances of “I’m” or “I am,” and many of these are retweets of a celebrity tweet.

And, by now, the #Boycott storm has largely passed for the fitness brands.

“The data shows that clearly,” Terry said. “This quick-moving outrage phenomenon speaks more to who we are as people and a society. Brands need to take these incidents seriously, but they often won’t know the true damage—if any—until quarter end.”

Chris Ross, vice president analyst in Gartner’s marketing practice, said it’s likely many Equinox and SoulCycle customers were unaware of the Trump connection and those who do not support the president are in the midst of some soul-searching.

“The SoulCycle brand, instructors, culture all resonate with many consumers, but they now have to try to reconcile that positive association with the fact the overall business entity and [parent company founder Stephen] Ross are Trump supporters,” he added.

In fact, Terry said sadness was the most prevalent emotion cited in conversations about the brands.

Ignoring what they don’t like is not an uncommon consumer response to bad news from the brands they love, Ross said—if, that is, the brand provides value it’s hard to find elsewhere.

Home goods retailer Wayfair was in a similar position in June when it faced negative publicity over its role in furnishing U.S. border camps. Online outrage was swift, but the uproar petered out in time for Wayfair to host a Black Friday in July sale.

One analytics firm forecast far worse for Wayfair, which it said has a customer base that is older than the average U.S. consumer, and more educated, affluent, tech-savvy and empowered. The firm said these customers are “deeply motivated to ensure that they are doing business with the best option available to them.”

And yet, like Equinox and SoulCycle, calls for a #WayfairWalkout peaked quickly and fizzled out—and the retailer’s Q2 financial results showed no sign of damage.

Data from YouGov also shows the Wayfair brand has recovered.

“But what we noted in our analysis of Wayfair was that its customers’ top political issue wasn’t immigration, so it wasn’t a specific overlap there,” said YouGov U.S. editor Andrew Greiner.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. News of child labor and poor working conditions in factories that produce iPhones have dogged Apple for years, but reports of slowing iPhone sales do not attribute the decline to consumer concerns about labor rights.

In 2017, the Financial Times reported students were working 11-hour days at a factory in China to produce the iPhone X—and just last week labor activist organization China Labor Watch reported nearly identical findings at a factory by the same name that produces Echo and Kindle devices.

In response, Amazon said it is “urgently investigating these allegations and addressing this with [the factory] at the most senior level.”

But this isn’t even Amazon’s only scandal this month. Days later, a group of current and former Whole Foods employees followed in the footsteps of an Amazon Web Services colleague by calling on Amazon to stop selling potentially biased facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for Whole Foods employees was not available by deadline.

Yet Amazon hasn’t suffered backlash from customers either. In fact, it recently celebrated “the largest shopping event in Amazon history” in which it sold more than 175 million items and signed up more new Prime members in a single day than ever before.

And, of course, there’s Facebook. Despite exposing the personal data of 87 million users, the think tank Pew Research Center found nearly seven in 10 U.S. adults still used Facebook as of May 2019—and 74% visited at least once a day (although 54% had adjusted their privacy settings).

And that’s in part because Facebook provides enough value that many users are willing to overlook the Cambridge Analytica faux pas.

“Nobody likes to think that’s true, but if you look at … how values drive consumer behavior, it’s a continuum,” Ross said. “There are those very committed to their values and who wouldn’t spend a dime with a business that does something they don’t agree with … but they are a small percentage of the overall customer base. Most might be irritated or annoyed, but if [a brand] still provides the right value exchange, they will continue to still do business with the brand.”

Walmart’s policy decision on guns and ammunition in the wake of two store shootings remains to be seen. But it’s another brand that meets customer needs in terms of price and convenience, and Ross said it’s possible “most people won’t be affected one way or the other.”

“That’s the reality for a lot of people—utility and value proposition is the core of … what they’re focused on,” he added. “As long as Walmart continues to do that … with the exception of fringe groups, it won’t have a huge impact.”

This isn’t necessarily the case with brands that are easily replaceable, like, say, a toothpaste or a toilet paper brand. Walmart, Amazon and Apple have what Ross called “a more defensible position in the lives of consumers,” so even if customers aren’t wild about what they’re doing the brands are “probably stickier because the experience isn’t replicable.”


@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.
Publish date: August 15, 2019 https://dev.adweek.com/retail/why-voting-with-their-wallets-may-be-an-idle-consumer-threat/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT