You may not get it yet, but you have a lot of political power – and not at the voting booth, but in the checkout line. In this new age of consumer activism, buyers are sending strong signals to American companies: consumers no longer want to be the passive recipients of marketing messages. They’re using their purses as a weapon and fighting back.

Globalization, the proliferation of high-speed internet connectivity and the advent of social media have all helped to nurture an environment in which consumer activism can flourish. They allow widespread consumer interest groups to support each other in their efforts to resist globalized consumption patterns. The speed, convenience, and propensity for coalition building made the internet a perfect place for consumers to run their activism. It’s a new world where companies are publically held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.

Consumer Activism

This generation is flexing a muscle that could lead to a healthier political culture. Our wallets became our strongest power. We compare companies’ actions against their promises and share stories of our own unique experiences, whether they are positive or negative. The connected world has enabled individual opinions to be shared at scale, representing a seismic shift in control from brand owner to consumer; a potentially terrifying prospect for companies.

FYI Consumer activism is defined as the range of activities undertaken by consumers or NGOs to make demands or state their views about certain causes linked directly or indirectly to a company. Consumer activism seeks to influence the way in which goods or services are produced or delivered in order to make the production safe, ethical and environmentally friendly. The ultimate goal is a safe and affordable product of the best quality.

Consumer Activism


Consumer Activism Throughout History

Consumer activism in the United States started with Free produce movement of the late 1700s. Consumers themselves, under the idea that they share in the responsibility for the consequences of their purchases, in an attempt to end slavery boycotted goods produced with slave labor.

Consumer organizations began to emerge in the United States around the 20th Century, starting with a Consumers League in New York in 1891 which merged with other regional chapters to form the National Consumers League in 1898. During this time activist boycotted largely in response to domestic and international socio-political concerns.

The publication of Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader in 1965 started a new type of legal-focused, anti-corporate activism. Whereas former activism had focused on the consequences of consumer actions and their protection, the modern activism became more confrontational toward the market. From the 1990s and into the 21st century, consumer activism has been closely associated with intense critiques of globalization and the damaging effects of concentrated corporate power.

Described as the “granddaddy of all activist campaigns” Nike came under fire in the 1990’s  for utilizing subcontracted international factories to produce their products. Nike sweatshops became infamous for unsatisfactory working conditions and substandard pay. This caused an onslaught of activism that initiated modern consumer activism. It fundamentally impacted Nike’s bottom line. Nowadays the company does things in a much more open and transparent way.

In 2010 Greenpeace found that palm oil production used in Kit Kats was destroying the rainforests and habitats of orangutans. Using massive social media campaign, Greenpeace made Kit Kat to cut all ties with the company that was providing the palm oil. Kit Kat later pledged to use only rainforest-sustainable palm oil by 2015. This movement became a notable success in consumer activism.

Consumer Activism

#Deleteuber movement

While consumer activism has been developing for some time, the importance of values in consumer decisions has taken new shape with the surprise election of Donald Trump. After one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in U.S. history, consumers are no longer isolating politics to the polls.

The #DeleteUber (or #DumpUber) movement is a current case study №1. Uber experienced backlash after it removed surge pricing to pick up the slack caused by NYC cab drivers who joined immigration protests in response to the president’s travel ban, imposed in January 2017, which temporarily barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country.

Consumer Activism

While protests were arising in many national airports, In JFK airport, the ride-sharing company was criticized for not canceling their service and allegedly using the event to gain profits. Many saw this Uber’s attempt to end the strike, and this led to #Deleteuber twitter campaign with people screen grabbing their deletion of the app, swearing allegiance to Uber’s competition and encouraging peers to do the same. As a result, #DeleteUber went viral and 200 000 users deleted the company’s app from their phones.

Although it hasn’t been easy to stop using the car service company, many customers felt a “moral obligation” to abstain from the company. They refused to contribute money to a corporation that had ties to the Trump administration, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sat on President Trump’s economic advisory council. Later it was announced that pressured by consumers and employees he stepped down from his position. Uber was clearly shaken by this experience. The company spent the next couple days running digital ads touting Kalanick’s opposition to Trump’s ban and launching PR-friendly shows of support for affected drivers.

Consumer Activism

#GrabYourWallet campaign

While tensions may have boiled over that night, Uber had already long held a spot on the #GrabYourWallet watchlist, which targets Trump’s business interests and Trump-branded products and the retailers who sell them.

It all started when Shannon Coulter saw the now-famous video where Trump essentially brags about committing sexual assault. She appropriated one of Trump’s ugliest misogynistic soundbites into a catchy slogan, and things took off from there.  Coulter analyzes the nature of each company’s Trump ties and then sorts them into lists according to the strength of the movement’s boycott recommendation. #GrabYourWallet campaign quickly spread across social media: the hashtag has been tweeted a grand total of more than 213,000 times and garnered more than 600 million impressions.

Consumer Activism

The boycott appears to have had huge success, even if its direct impact can only be approximated. It has been credited with the dropping of the Ivanka Trump line of products from a series of major US retailers including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Wayfair and Sears. T.J. Maxx and Marshalls removed all of their Ivanka Trump signage, sending it straight to the trash. In the UK, Ivanka Trump-branded products are available through Amazon against which Ethical Consumer has called a boycott for its tax avoidance. Macy’s dropped Donald Trump’s clothing line early in his campaign after he called Mexican immigrants “killers” and “rapists.”

Boycotters were satisfied with the wink-and-nod approach. Even without an outright acknowledgment that their actions were behind the removal of Ivanka Trump products, the site removed companies that had reversed their ties to Trump, from the list of boycott targets. And while these actions may inspire counterprotests, companies are getting the message that they have to pick a side–whichever side they want their consumers to be on.

Consumer Activism On Environmental Issues

No doubt corporate responses to consumer boycotts have made headlines in recent weeks, highlighting the increasingly important role consumer activism can play in social change. However, it’s time to use the wallet as a weapon in this fight – and not just for anti-Trump campaigns.

Inditex, the owner of Zara clothing stores, eliminated fur from more than 1,000 stores. Staples’ increased recycled content in its paper products. Seaworld ended its orca breeding programs. Kimberly-Clark’s new paper procurement policies have reduced deforestation. All these cases prove that consumer activism campaigns on environmental issues can be effective. Studies of consumer movements show they are often successful in changing corporate practices: boycotts that receive at least some national media attention have about a 25% success rate in influencing corporate practices; and for those that include public protests or demonstrations, the success rate boosts to about 50%.

Consumer Activism

By supporting greener products and companies and refusing to support environmental and social abusers, we can now radically change the way our companies behave. Nowadays billions of green appliances are sold every year. Solar panel installations on American rooftops have surpassed 1 million. Tons of electric vehicles are now on America’s roadways. Organic food sales are showing double-digit growth each year. That’s consumer choice in action.

Businesses sell what we demand. As new consumer labels are developed beyond organic food, fair trade, and wind-made, it will be all the easier for us to make our voices heard. We can vote every day and in a powerful way with our dollars. We don’t have to wait for someone to change the world for the better. This election has given a fresh start to consumer activism, and it just might help usher in the most progressive era of environmental and social policy-making in the US.

Consumer Activism

How Companies Can Benefit From Consumer Activism

In fact, the question is whether brands will continue to see consumer activism as a threat or harness the opportunity to collaborate with the activists to build a brand fit for the future. If the brand can properly identify the market opportunities and risks, and pick the best time to declare an opinion supported by the majority of its stakeholders, it can actually build a strong, positive image.

Consumer trust in brands is at an all-time low. The biggest risk in this situation is to act inauthentically, contrived or in an opportunistic way. Today consumers evaluate brands by how much they feel they have in common in terms of their values. So if the company cannot express or articulate those values it risks leaving its intent and action open to interpretation.

Consumer Activism

To earn the trust and loyalty of the consumer activists brands must act with integrity. Honesty, transparency and two-way dialogue are crucial. Consumers want to be involved in the decision-making process. For organizations this means listening to the insight they share, acting on it, and inviting them to invest time in co-creating the product.

It also means providing an access to the facts so that when consumers share their opinions the message they spread will be positive. Given that 79% of consumers trust peers’ recommendations over any other form of advertising there is a very strong case for doing so.

To come across as responsible organizations, companies can vow to spend a certain part of their revenues on CSR or openly pledge to work on the less fortunate. By starting a social campaign or making its stand clear on an issue and then providing a suitable platform to its consumers to take the fight forward with its constant support, it can turn consumer activism into brand activism.

 Consumer Activism

Values-Based Marketing Initiatives

The lesson in clear: activism sells, and fast. More and more companies are going out their way to do good, but only if they can tell anyone who’ll listen how compassionate they are.This is not generosity for generosity’s sake. Rather, this is a calculated business strategy that has recently been paying off big time. And judging by the wave of grassroots activism sweeping through the country in light of recent events, consumers will be in the mood to support activist brands for quite a while.

Starbucks recently announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in five years while clearly articulating their values. Airbnb announced that stranded refugees could stay for free and Lyft, partially powered by immigrants, pledged a million dollars to support the ACLU. Budweiser aired an ad during the Super Bowl with a strong pro-immigrant message. Nike Inc., Ford Motor Co., and many other companies issued statements condemning the immigration ban and emphasizing the importance of diversity in America. The Coca-Cola Company ran a new version of its “controversial” “American the Beautiful” commercial.

Sure, companies can strategically use activism in your ads. However, they should keep in mind that anything even faintly reminiscent of exploitation is an absolute no-no. Incorporating activism into the organization should be nothing but natural and sincere. So how can a brand or organization ride the wave? Here’s an example of what they probably wouldn’t want to do:

SNL knows what’s up. If you’re a snack brand with no connection to transgender issues, don’t try to suddenly turn your mascot into a transgender hero. If your workforce is 5 percent women, spicing up your ads with demands for women’s rights misses the mark. Exploitation is highly likely to backfire – social media whistleblowers are ramping up their outrage.

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