Many people, myself included, believe Donald Trump’s failure to place his assets in a blind trust is more than just problematic. The full extent to which President Trump may be abusing public power for private gain—that is, engaging in corruption—is unknowable, so long as his business empire remains opaque and his tax returns stay buried. Even where Trump’s business interests are out in the open, a “shadow of corruption” hangs over the actions he takes as an ostensible public servant.
Some of the people who share these concerns are exploring ways in which they might engage in consumer activism as a response to Trump’s conflicts of interest. Consider two organizations that are leading broad boycotts against the Trump Administration. Don’t Pay Trump is a web browser extension that allows one to, in their words, “keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.” It alerts the consumer when he or she is making an online purchase from a business that sells Trump products. A second initiative, #grabyourwallet, is a more established and exceedingly low-tech enterprise which also calls for “flexing consumer power.” #grabyourwallet maintains what looks like an excel spreadsheet that displays companies ripe for a Trump boycott. It provides the necessary tools to the activist consumer: name and number of the company, reason it should be boycotted, suggested sample of what to say, and updates on successes. #grabyourwallet received credit for the recent Nordstroms decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s produces from its stores, which earned Nordstroms a Presidential tweeted complaint on February 8th.
Both of these organizations attempt to decrease the profitability of Trump businesses, albeit for different reasons. Don’t Pay Trump seeks to weaponize consumer power to affect administration policy, while #grabyourwallet is explicitly motivated by the Trump family’s conflicts. It is difficult to say how effective the anti-Trump boycotts might be, given the absence of direct analogies to the current situation. Nonetheless, we might be able to draw some lessons from past corporate boycott efforts:
First, organizing is key. In general, corporate boycotts that are not led by advocacy groups tend to fizzle as consumers lose interest. Moral indignation can be difficult to sustain, and boycotts disrupt normal spending habits, so people become fatigued. Cooperative, sustained advocacy can be vital for success. For example, in the 1990s, a global boycott targeted Nike for using child labor in sweatshops. The activism was largely successful in prompting a significant shift in Nike’s corporate culture over the following two decades. The Nike boycott succeeded because it was a professionally managed, enduring campaign with a fairly well defined goal, directed by a transnational coalition of advocacy groups. Compare the Nike boycott with the Trump supporters’ Budweiser one, which followed its Super Bowl commercial celebrating the immigrant roots of the founder. Partly because it was poorly organized, the Budweiser boycott had no effect on the company.
Secondly, boycotts are powerful if they negatively affect brand value. After Trump’s first Executive Order banning citizens from seven majority Muslim countries, pro-immigration activists launched a boycott called #deleteuber, which encouraged customers to unsubscribe from the service by erasing the application. The effort was a response to Uber apparently profiting by undermining a New York City taxi strike that had been called to protest the Order. The Uber boycott caused CEO Travis Kalanick to leave Trump’s Business Advisory Council and pledge $3 million to help those negatively impacted by the ban. Unlike Budweiser, Uber took an immediate, powerful hit to its brand value, particularly as compared to its main competitor, Lyft, whose CEO condemned the ban immediately and pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU. #deleteuber enjoyed speedy results because Uber could track in real time as it lost hundreds of thousands of customers.
Drawing from these cases, we can say a few things about the Don’t Pay Trump and #grabyourwallet boycotts:
- The Nike case shows that organization, coalition building, and supplementing the boycott with other activism tools is a sound strategy. Both anti-Trump boycott platforms should collaborate and build partnerships with other types of activists. Nike’s brand is ubiquitous, which may have ironically helped to keep public attention. Americus Reed (a Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business) recently wrote in the New York Times that when it comes to Trump, who is in the public eye constantly, a long-term boycott might be sustainable. This is good news for both organizations.
- The Uber example demonstrates that direct hits on brand value can cause significant, rapid shifts in organization behavior. This suggests focusing on specific consumer-facing brands, one at a time, to punish bad actions/support of certain policies. #grabyourwallet should selectively focus on egregious examples of exploiting the office for private gain, while Don’t Pay Trump has a broader selection of potential companies that might be more vulnerable to brand degradation.
The problem for both Don’t Buy Trump and #grabyourwallet is that Trump’s brand survived the turbulent election. And while some of his private interests might dry up, others will benefit from self-dealing, or, like Mar-a-Lago, from doubling rates and advertising themselves as Presidential. During the campaign, there were indications that some of his hotels were suffering, and Trump’s brand value plunged after audio leaked in which he bragged about sexual assault. However, after the election Trump’s brand power is doing better than ever, particularly for country clubs and luxury condos, although the same is not true for retailers that market to younger voters. Importantly, none of this addresses any business interests the Trump family might have which are not consumer facing. Conglomerates are just about impossible to boycott because they are so amorphous, and Trump may well have investments that are invisible to consumers.
As long as Trump’s brand is not suffering, he will continue to derive private benefit from his public office. While he is clearly aware his businesses are being targeted for political reasons (and no doubt irritated by it), the annoyance alone is unlikely to be enough motivation to force Trump to divest and place his assets in a blind trust. Nevertheless, these boycott campaigns may have some success, especially if they improve their collaboration efforts and manage to keep the public eye on Trump’s conflicts.