Branded Boycotts

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

The rush of boycotts and counter-boycotts is testimony to companies' success in selling themselves as lifestyle brands.  This is particularly true in the case of Whole Foods, but also for Wal-Mart and probably any other company whose customers feel a strong affinity with it. Whole Foods and Wal-Mart are successful for the products they sell, but they're also cultural signifiers. 

Are Mac users afficianadoes solely because of the software platform?  Do Whole Foods shoppers patronize the chain solely because they like organic fruits? They're lifestyle brands; they connote status and priorities. The same is true with Wal-Mart: it's Southern-based, suburban, cost-oriented. When companies successfully pitch themselves as part of your identity -- often with implications of status and value -- it's only natural that a large segment of their shoppers feel a sense of betrayal when the corporation acts against that image. 

The passion behind the boycotters and anti-boycotters is baffling only so long as the brand experience is perceived as a neutral, passionless relationship.  For a lot of people it isn't. It's part of who they are, like a sports team or a college sweatshirt. The outrage over the companies' politically toned actions is just evidence of their marketing successes.