The Power of the Non-Consumer - Consumer Motivations for Boycott Participation

Boycotts can cost companies dearly in both prestige and profits, but there has been very little methodological research done as to why consumers may or may not choose to boycott. Prof. Jill Klein, N. Craig Smith of the London Business School and consultant Andrew John carried out an empirical study of a real, ongoing boycott of a major foods multinational planning on closing several factories. Their findings offer new insight into this intriguing form of consumer behaviour.

by Jill Klein, Andrew John,N. Craig Smith
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Boycotts are an intriguing form of consumer behaviour. The impetus for modern boycotts typically comes from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that finds some aspect of a corporation's practices to be egregious. As such, they represent rather an extreme phenomenon within broader categories in which social and ethical concerns - i.e., human rights, the environment, etc. - help determine large-scale purchasing decisions. Some of the world's biggest corporations, including Nestlé, Nike, Starbucks and British Petroleum, have recently learned this lesson the hard way.

Despite boycotts potential to greatly affect a corporations' public stature and profitability, there has been remarkably little methodological research on individual consumers' motivations for boycotting specific companies. INSEAD Associate Professor of Marketing Jill G. Klein and co-authors N. Craig Smith of the London Business School and Andrew John of AJK Consulting have attempted to redress this by taking a cost-benefit approach in their analysis. In doing so, they present a conceptual framework for the underlying motives in boycott participation.

The authors conclude that four essential factors are found to predict any decisions by individuals to boycott:

· The desire to "make a difference";

· The scope for self-enhancement;

· Counter-arguments that inhibit boycotting, and

· The cost to the boycotter of any constraints in consumption.

They also explore the role of how individuals often perceive how other people take part in boycotts, and discuss at length certain implications for marketers, NGOs, policymakers and researchers that their findings might present.

It is both intriguing and somewhat perplexing that, despite the fact that a good many consumers might well see a particular corporation's practices in a specific area as odious, only a minority tend to say they will definitely or probably choose to boycott said corporation. (In analysing this behaviour, the authors' goal became as much to explain why some people chose not to boycott as to discover why others choose to do so.

To test their hypotheses, they carried out an empirical study of an actual, ongoing boycott of a European-based food products multinational. The announcement of factory closings was widely covered, and generated an initially small series of boycotts. Using access to sales-tracking data, the authors compared the sales of two different brands produced by the company: the first made in the factories to be closed, the second made in other factories.

They found that while most respondents found the firm's actions to be egregious, most of those disapproving were still not boycotters, nor were most even seriously considering joining the boycott. All this in spite of the fact that:

· The boycott target had been widely vilified in both print and broadcast media.

· Respondents were well informed about the issues leading to the boycott.

· Respondents overwhelmingly disapproved of the company's actions.

Closer scrutiny did, however, reveal that the NGO-sponsored boycott actually had a negative impact on the company. Losses of sales and the fact that shoppers were given a reason to try competitor's products were a not unsubstantial blow. There were also several more indirect negative effects for the corporation.

The authors also analyse boycotts from the corporations' perspectives. They consider examples of companies' strategic decisions on whether to fight or to display some willingness to negotiate with NGOs when boycotts have been called for. While acknowledging that their research faces certain inherent limitations due to the exigencies of studying a real boycott while in progress, they conclude that such limitations did not materially influence the results of their multifaceted, in-depth analysis of a real and prominent boycott.

Journal of Marketing, July 2004

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