Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes aren’t normally the kind of brands to get caught in the political crosshairs. But in the aftermath of a combustible election, Kellogg cereals and a growing number of consumer brands have suddenly found themselves the unexpected target of boycotts and hot-tempered rhetoric.
Kellogg said last week it would pull advertising from Breitbart News, the far-right website that its critics say trades in racist and sexist content. In response, Breitbart called on readers to boycott the company, devoted a chunk of its front page to stories about Kellogg or the boycott, and sparked a social media outcry. Consumers on both the right and the left piled in, saying they would either stop buying the company’s products — or conversely, stock up on them.
The maker of Eggo waffles and Pop-Tarts is only the latest American corporation caught in the crossfire. In the weeks since the election, companies have navigated a sharply politicized environment, one that has entailed calls for boycotts, explosive social media responses to executive comments and thorny interactions between front-line workers and their customers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, where companies find themselves so open to attack for their points of view or their speech,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for the public relations firm Weber Shandwick. “Companies are now much more in the fray and seen as political targets.”
Protests have targeted companies after specific comments or incidents. After a New Balance executive made a supportive comment about Trump in response to a journalist’s question about a trade deal — New Balance manufacturers its shoes in the United States — people shared images of themselves tossing or even burning its sneakers, and a neo-Nazi blogger hailed them as the “official shoes of white people.”
At a conference, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said that some of her employees were “crying” about the election outcome. But she also congratulated Trump and called for unity. The comments triggered another call for a boycott by supporters of the president-elect.
Delta Air Lines was called out on social media for not immediately removing a passenger from a plane after his expletive-laden pro-Trump rant. The airline’s CEO, Ed Bastian, later said in a memo to employees that it would ban the customer for life and refund other passengers’ tickets. “I also want to make sure all of you know we have your backs,” he wrote. “The heightened tension in our society means that now more than ever we must require civility on our planes and in our facilities.”
Others have organized broader efforts. An app called “Boycott Trump,” created by a grass-roots anti-Trump organization, tells users whether companies are connected to the president-elect. On Thursday, the organizers behind it said the app had been downloaded nearly 90,000 times since it was released Nov. 21. Before the election, a marketing strategist started the #grabyourwallet hashtag to encourage consumers to avoid companies that do business with the Trump family.
In Kellogg’s case, the breakfast giant said its decision to pull ads from Breitbart “had nothing to do with politics.” In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Kris Charles said “we regularly work with our media buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values,” and that after learning from consumers about the ads, it decided to stop advertising there. According to Digiday, other companies, including Allstate and Warby Parker, have also withdrawn ads, and may not have been aware of the ads, which are not bought directly from Breitbart but are referred to as “retargeted” advertising that follow users from site to site on the Internet.
Breitbart, which was formerly run by Stephen Bannon, who has been named Trump’s chief strategist, declared “#war” on the cereal giant.
“Kellogg’s decision to blacklist one of the largest conservative media outlets in America is economic censorship of mainstream conservative political discourse,” it said in a statement published by The Associated Press. “That is as un-American as it gets.”
In an article on its website, Breitbart President and CEO Larry Solov said “the only sensible response is to join together and boycott Kellogg’s products in protest.” The Twitter hashtag #DumpKelloggs has been used more than 111,000 times in the past week, according to the analytics firm Brandwatch.
The explosive response, advisers say, is leaving many companies paralyzed by the potential ramifications of their words or actions, particularly in an environment where traditionally routine topics or actions have become politicized.
“It’s definitely having a slowing and chilling effect on the willingness of some companies to step out and be as engaged in the public sphere,” said Bruce Haynes, president of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan consultancy focused on corporate reputation and politics. “That’s even more amplified by the fact that there’s this unknown quantity about Donald Trump and his administration and how he will govern.”
This also comes at a time when many companies have been more willing to speak out on political and social issues they had once avoided. More than 200 corporations, for instance, signed a letter by the Human Rights Campaign earlier this year demanding that North Carolina repeal a law that limits bathroom options for transgender people, with some even pulling expansion plans from the state, including PayPal and Deutsche Bank. More companies tout their commitments to diversity, the environment and gender equality, often promoting these to help connect with customers who increasingly make purchases based on their values.
Anthony Johndrow, CEO of a reputation advisory firm in New York, says he’s spent recent years telling companies that “to connect with a new generation of consumers, you have to stand for something.” But in the weeks since the election, “they’re turning back to me and saying ‘now what? It feels like if we talk about anything that’s been part of the political discourse it’s polarized. You’re with us or against us.’ ”
Reputation experts say corporations appear to be preparing for how they’ll respond if they become the next political target or trying to assess how well they’re really in touch with the views of their customers following an election outcome that stunned many.
Others say they expect companies to increase training or communications with front-line employees to make sure they know how to deal with volatile political situations. At the craft store chain Michael’s, a customer loudly berated black employees, claiming she was being discriminated against and saying she’d voted for Trump. At a Starbucks in Florida, an irate customer lashed out at employees after waiting for his drink, saying “I voted for Trump!” Videos of both incidents went viral on social media.
A Starbucks spokesperson said in an email that after another social media campaign led to customers asking for political messages to be written on their coffee cups by baristas, field leaders were asked to remind workers of advice for how to handle such encounters.
Where companies could find themselves more at risk is when they become part of actual policy discussions, Haynes said. He points to Carrier, the air conditioner unit owned by United Technologies, which just agreed to keep 1,100 jobs in Indianapolis after negotiations that involved a $7 million tax incentive package from the state of Indiana. “Had Carrier not pulled back, it was likely that Trump voters were going to boycott,” he said.
Trump, for his part, suggested the reverse would happen during a stop on his “Thank you” tour Thursday. Standing in front of a wall covered in Carrier’s logo, Trump said sales of its air-conditioning units would soar “because of the goodwill you have engendered.”