Do Boycotts Work?


It is probably important

to consider whether or not boycotts are actually effective before joining the call for a boycott. It is also important to define the word effective, and to consider the potential philosophical deficiencies in boycotting a company. Nike, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and Home Depot are four major companies that have recently been in the media for various reasons. Agreement or disagreement with the company stance is not the focus of this piece. Moreover, some of these boycotts have been the result of the worldview or actions of one person within the company, and not necessarily representative of the entire company itself. Nike and Chick-fil-A decidedly have had leaders within the company that hold a publicly known worldview, and Home Depot and Starbucks have since joined the fray.

But first let’s consider

how many people these companies employ. According to the Home Depot website, they employ “nearly 400,000 orange-blooded associates in more than 2,200 stores in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.” cites Starbucks as employing approximately 191,000 people in the U.S. alone, as of 2018. Should a country so concerned with employment really push to boycott companies that employ so many people? If the boycotts are effective, then it is worth examining. But again, it is important to define the word effective.

A call for a boycott

can spread like wildfire. Social media can instantly push the boycott narrative to trending and generate conversation and misgivings about purchasing a product from a company. There really is no evidence that trends on social media have any effect on a company’s profit margin, however. Just five days after the #BoycottNike incident, stock in Nike reportedly increased 2%. Nike netted about $3 billion (with a B) after the Betsy Ross shoe was nixed, according to Forbes. The recent event at Starbucks in Tempe, AZ quickly became national news, but quickly became buried in a host of other news stories. The Nike story will be forgotten until Nike again decides it needs a bump in its stock.

The Starbucks story

in particular was rather ambiguous. Why did the customer ask the barista to ask the police to leave, rather than just address the police his or herself? Did anyone ever identify the customer? Why did the customer feel uncomfortable? There is likely more to this story. Unfortunately, this story will wither in the dust bin of formally trending hashtags. Starbucks, known for both their global-leaning worldview and recent political limelight aimed squarely at founder Howard Schultz, is also known for close work with public service communities surrounding many of their locations. But #BoycottStarbucks quickly became a thing, especially after the Tempe Police Union tweeted out a picture with #DumpStarbucks attached. Much like the story, the trending boycott did not last.

. . . or you could just not buy it?

Branding is ultimately

the only thing at stake here. Each company is a brand unto itself. Nike is synonymous with sports. The common person that thinks of coffee thinks of Starbucks. The color orange will forever resonate with Home Depot. When Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A publicly stated he supports a biblical view of marriage, it affected the brand. The brand’s sales have tripled over the last ten years, according to the Wall Street Journal. So, boycotts might work in the sense that they attach a brand to a cause or a particular worldview, but it does not appear that they ever really affect a company’s bottom line. It is worth examining the end goal of a boycott before joining the boycott. If it is simply about being a small voice in a large movement, then participate. But do not pretend you are going to affect a bottom line.