Under Armour

Under Armour, Uber, Nordstrom: 2017 is already shaping up to be the year of the consumer boycott

By Tina Irgang

The aftermath of the hyper-partisan 2016 election has resulted in a highly charged environment where threats of a consumer boycott are never far away. Most recently, such threats prompted Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank to back-pedal on favorable comments he made about President Donald Trump.

In an interview on CNBC Feb. 7, Plank praised Trump as being “highly passionate” and “a real asset,” according to The Baltimore Sun.

Consumers immediately pushed back on social media with threats of a boycott. Under Armour also heard from some of its most powerful brand voices: “A social media backlash against Plank’s comments included opposition from athlete endorsers including ballerina Misty Copeland, actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and basketball star Stephen Curry, whose signature basketball shoes have helped propel the brand’s footwear sales,” The Sun reports elsewhere.

In response, Under Armour soon issued a statement calling for an “inclusive immigration policy,” an apparent reference to Trump’s recent executive order suspending refugee admissions and travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. That statement included no explicit opposition to the order, but another statement, issued Feb. 10, did, The Sun notes.

On Feb. 15, Plank went another step further. He released an open letter to Under Armour’s home town of Baltimore, in which he stated that his comments “did not accurately reflect my intent,” that Under Armour is “publicly opposing the travel ban” and that the company “will join a coalition of companies in opposition to any new actions that negatively impact our team, their families or our community.”

Boycotts hit the bottom line

Plank’s uncomfortable week is only the latest in a string of similar incidents where a company’s statements or actions landed it in hot water with either Trump supporters or opponents.

You may recall that Uber was forced to clarify its position on Trump’s executive order as well, after what some perceived as the company’s attempts to break up a strike connected to the order. “The company was clearly shaken by the experience; it 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,” reports Mashable.

On the other side of the aisle, “Trump enthusiasts have begun waging a battle against those companies whose leadership expressed public misgivings” about Trump, such as Starbucks and PepsiCO, reports Forbes.

The business impact of politically motivated boycotts became clear recently when Nordstrom dropped the clothing brand designed by first daughter Ivanka Trump, noting that the line’s sales had fallen 32 percent, while overall sales for Nordstrom were on the rise, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Are boycotts going too far?

Some argue that the politically motivated boycotts of businesses are starting to go too far. For example, when Casey Patten, owner of Washington, DC sandwich shop Taylor Gourmet, visited the White House to discuss small-business issues with President Trump recently, he faced an immediate social-media backlash as well, reports Slate.

Slate summarizes the problems with the reflexive calls for boycotts in this way: “It is now very easy to effectively call for a boycott. … But the new way comes with a serious downside: It doesn’t permit much time to consider what’s to be lost or gained by boycotting a particular target. That can lead to activist burnout, water down other boycotts’ efficacy, and cause harm to people whose offenses don’t merit this level of outrage.”

For CEOs, navigating the charged political environment of 2017 means “being extra circumspect in what they say – even ‘privately’ – about Trump and contentious social issues. In this hothouse environment, the most innocuous statements can be taken out of context and exploited by boycotters,” says Forbes. The magazine notes that executives are well advised to consider what actions and statements they should steer clear of, adding that “tit-for-tat boycotts could become part of the new normal.”

While it has always been risky for companies to make political statements, it is open to debate whether democracy — and the country’s economic health — are served by near-daily boycott threats at the slightest perceived provocation.

Tina Irgang is SmartCEO’s managing editor. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.