ECONOMIST AND SOCIOLOGIST THORSTEIN Veblen coined the phrase Conspicuous Consumption in the late 19th century to describe the way the nouveau riche in America showed off their social status and capitalist gains. They consumed expensive goods and made extravagant displays solely to demonstrate their wealth. Today’s youth also tend to identify themselves by what they consume, but in a much less craven way.
In a 2017 Ford Motor Company study on consumer behavior, the majority of individuals surveyed consider prosperity as being less about wealth and more about happiness and personal fulfillment. This represents a major shift in what it means to “live the good life,” and many of us now place more value on pursuing meaningful experiences than achieving material success. As a business owner, it’s important to find ways for our team members to shape the way we do business, even if it’s outside their job description. If not, they’ll find someplace else where they can. But what about the consumer space? If fairness and meaning are what’s most important, how do we experience either from the purely utilitarian act of buying something?
Enter the buycott.
Americans have always used the marketplace to express themselves, and boycotts have long been a popular strategy for consumer activism. Though generally accepted as an effective method of protest, the actual outcome of boycotting is complicated and often misunderstood. As widely reported in 2012, the CEO of upscale fast food chain Chick Fil-A made anti-gay marriage remarks that were met with wide outrage. LGBTQ+ organizations alongside other socially-progressive groups quickly organized boycotts of their restaurants, and the news coverage painted a picture of a company headed for disaster. At the same time, however, conservative groups mobilized support for Chick Fil-A through a phenomenon known colloquially as a buycott. The buycott, designed to reward the company for taking a public position they supported, more than counteracted the boycott and Chick Fil-A actually reported record sales. Even though most Americans polled supported gay marriage, the failed boycott effort showed they represented a silent majority. The buycott actively galvanized supporters while the opposition existed mainly in principle.
Those most affected by boycotts are sometimes not even the intended targets. The boycotts of British Petroleum (BP) after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 hurt unrelated and independent gas station owners much more than the oil company itself. At that time, BP owned less than 5 percent of its more than 11,000 branded stations in the United States, and the biggest pain for station owners came from lost sales from higher-margin convenience store items like chips and pop (in Michigan we say pop instead of soda). Similarly, single-day gas boycotts, though popular, have close to zero effect on gas prices and the financial health of oil companies. These protests merely create longer lines at filling stations the next day or encourage consumers to top off their tanks the day before. It’s not abstinence. It’s just rearrangement of purchasing habits and it perfectly illustrates a major problem with boycotts: People often don’t understand or stick to them. It isn’t that boycotts are completely ineffective; rather their effect on a business is usually more reputational than economic. It’s a moral reckoning, not a monetary one, and highly-publicized boycotts are most likely to change a company’s behavior, not sales.
In the beer industry, achieving meaning through abstaining appears elusive as well. The acquisition of Chicago’s own Goose Island Beer Company by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011 sent waves through the world of craft beer. Goose Island has long been a beacon of innovation in brewing, and many of its supporters throughout the country were appalled by its sale to the “Evil Empire.” I watched with interest as local merchants announced boycotts and beer enthusiasts abided by them. But over the next few years, the calls for abstinence grew fainter. Largely because of the quality of its coveted Bourbon County series, Goose Island products slowly began to reappear in craft circles. The prevailing reasoning was that by continuing to drink Goose Island, craft consumers could actively participate in shaping the company for the better. Uninterrupted consumption might convince the new ownership to keep the beer and the people employed there the same, whereas maintaining a boycott might only encourage the corporate overlords to change the culture and cut corners in the way many feared they would. Plus, the beer was good. That alone was almost enough. It was a war AB InBev won by both attrition and attention to quality, and even the staunchest of opponents eventually gave in or stopped caring. Consumption usually wins. We must understand that.
To wit, buycotts have become an increasingly powerful tool and reflect a marketplace behavior we can expect to see more and more. A 2018 study by PR firm Weber Shandwick showed that in the last two years, buycotters took an average of 5.7 supportive actions versus 4.5 from boycotters. And buycotts are only expected to grow in number. It’s clear that we increasingly define ourselves by what we do, not by what we don’t.