Especially this past year, the idea of “voting with your wallet” has taken on a certain cache as consumers have looked to connect their spending habits with their larger ethical stance. The #GrabYourWallet movement, for instance, took President Trump’s lewd comments as a springboard to encourage consumers not to buy from more than 50 Trump-affiliated brands. And new financial tools, like the impact measurement score from the company Aspiration, help consumers to track the environmental and ethical implications of where they shop.
But what’s not discussed in the “vote with your wallet” conversation is the very different implications of supporting a company by purchasing from it, or refusing to do so all together. A new report from the public relations firm Weber Shandwick investigates the different motivations behind the former, which they term “buycotts” and the latter boycotts–and why buycotts are slowly overtaking boycotts as the preferred mode of consumer activism.
In an online survey, conducted last August, Weber Shandwick polled 2,000 self-identified consumer activists throughout the U.S. and U.K. on what actions they’ve taken in support of or opposition to brands, and what forms of consumer activism they believe to be most effective (the 2,000 respondent were whittled down from a larger pool of 4,268; those who had never participated in any form of consumer activism were disqualified).
What the researchers found was that while “buycotts” are currently fewer in number than boycotts, the tide seems to be turning. Around 83% of the people Weber Shandwick polled said that it’s more important than ever for consumer activists to show support for companies by buying from them; 59% said the same for boycotts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are drawn along generational lines: Buycotters are more likely to be millennials, and boycotters are more likely to be boomers, who probably recall when the tactic was deployed during the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
Even though boycotts make a political statement–and in many instances, like the #DeleteUber movement from last year, have inspired market shifts–the findings from the report, says Paul Massey, the global lead of Weber Shandwick’s social impact group, reflect an uncomfortable reality about the protests: From a financial perspective, when levied against particular brands and corporations, they rarely make the intended dent in revenue. L.L. Bean, for instance, which was targeted in the #GrabYourWallet movement for its heir and board member’s support of Donald Trump, did not see its numbers fall. And 19% of people surveyed by Weber Shandwick believe that boycotts hurt employees of the companies, more than they do the companies themselves.
Buycotts, on the other hand, seem to have an impact on a company’s bottom line. After Patagonia, in December 2017, blacked out its website with the message that “The President Stole Your Land” and sued Trump for reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah, the company’s external web sales increase by a multiple of six.
So what’s at work in this dynamic? “One of the things we’ve seen in the last decade or so is a significant increase in the investment that companies are making in articulating and delivering on a core purpose,” Massey says. And as many people’s trust in government and politicians has teetered over the past couple years, more and more consumers are turning to brands and companies to represent their personal interests and ethics. “Americans will now likely say that to support a CEO that’s speaking up on a social issue that they care about, they will buy products from that company,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist.
In short, it seems, people want a way to feel involved, and feel like they’re making an impact. Voting with your wallet by buying from a company whose values align with one’s own, for consumers, mirrors the effect of voting in a political election, while withholding from either is beginning to feel counterproductive.