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As activists boycott pro-Israel brands, what should marketers do next?


By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

November 10, 2023 | 8 min read

Pro-Palestine consumers are protesting in the streets and with their wallets, boycotting corporations that support Israel, including Disney, Starbucks and McDonald’s. The Drum delves into the possible implications of the boycott movement and asks what, if anything, brands should be saying right now.

Illuminations in the form of flags in support of Israel in its war with Hamas at a McDonalds restaurant in Kyiv, Ukraine

Starbucks, McDonald's and Disney are among the brands the boycott targets / Adobe Stock

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza has sparked massive demonstrations around the world and reignited an economic pressure campaign to boycott multinational companies over their connections to Israel.

The ’big three’ to have found themselves in the spotlights of activists across social media are Starbucks, McDonald’s and Disney: Starbucks after the company disagreed with a post its Starbucks Workers United union made on X showing solidarity with Palestine, McDonald’s after it provided free meals to the Israel Defense Forces and The Walt Disney Company after it pledged $2m in humanitarian aid to Israel following the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Behind the effort is BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which bills itself on its website as a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality.”

While boycotting is generally a personal consumer choice, 38 US states have passed some kind of anti-BDS law, resolution or executive order, many with bipartisan support. These laws generally prevent government agencies (including schools, legislatures and employers) from contracting with people or entities that support the BDS movement, with some of its critics considering it antisemitic.

Gauging appetite for boycotts among the crowds at a pro-Palestine protest organized by If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace Los Angeles and the Arab-American Civic Council, The Drum heard from 33-year-old Palestinian-American activist Zainab about why she is no longer buying pro-Israel brands. “I am a Palestinian; my grandparents were expelled in the 1948 Nakba, so I have grown up seeing the oppression. I not only stand for Palestinians; I stand for all humanity. I stand for Black Lives Matter, I stood against the wall suppressing Mexican rights and I do not stand for the killing in Sudan or Congo. I am not going to stop protesting, whether it is monetarily against brands and companies or going out in the streets every weekend.”

With a reported 300,000 people having marched in Washington, DC on Saturday, calling for a ceasefire and an end to US support, should pro-Israel brands be more concerned about the scale of pro-Palestine sentiment? And should other brands express an opinion one way or another?

“It is well-known that most boycotts do not last very long,“ explains Drew Kerr, crisis prevention advisor of The Four Corners Group (“except if you’re Bud Light,“ he adds, referencing the boycott of the brand by conservative commentators following its partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney).

“It requires a lot of bandwidth over a long period to have any substantial impact. The temperature of the room is red-hot right now and very volatile, but at some point it will cool down, which will gradually allow more stable conversations and reactions.”

Since the onset of the conflict, some 150 companies have issued statements condemning Hamas’s attacks and showing solidarity with Israel, according to a list compiled by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Lester Crown Professor in Management Practice at Yale.

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There is currently no tracker for brands that have publicly supported Palestine, while other brands continue to remain silent on the issue.

According to Chris Harihar, executive vice-president at Mod-Op’s Crenshaw Communications, this silence underscores a broader, industry-wide shift towards more silent and conservative communications strategies.

“Over the last six months, there has been a clear trend of brands adopting a more cautious stance on political issues and contentious debates, which could be dubbed the ‘Bud Light effect,’” he says. “Many companies also seemed to be more muted around Pride, suggesting a broader shift towards fewer proactive statements on sensitive topics. In this climate, brands are only likely to speak out if there’s very little risk.”

Opinions also vary about brands’ moral obligations to take a side. A recent Gallup and Bentley University poll found that only 41% of US adults believe businesses should take a public stance on current events.

“A surprisingly small amount of brands have made any statements at all about the conflict, says Kerr. ”Perhaps they read the results of that Gallup poll.

”My advice to brands is to make sure consumers know they’re being heard because that is ultimately what everybody wants. I recommend they make a simple and neutral yet empathetic statement, such as, ‘We hear your words and see your actions about the conflict in the Middle East. We are monitoring the situation and hope for a positive outcome.’”

Tyler Mount, an expert on digital marketing strategy and owner of the ad agency Henry Street Creative, agrees that brands can strike a balance between addressing pertinent social causes that matter to certain consumers while still appealing to a diverse customer base.

“In light of the recent developments surrounding social media campaigns and the calls for boycotting brands that support Israel, I fully recognize the significance of these issues and the concerns raised by various activist organizations,” he says. “Larger brands play a pivotal role in the global marketplace and their influence extends beyond just economic impact. Some are cultural icons with a vast reach.”

Mount goes as far as to say that brands have an “ethical responsibility” to ensure their practices align with a “strong commitment to ethical, humanitarian and social values. This includes addressing any concerns related to human rights and geopolitics in a transparent and responsible manner.”

He adds: “Ultimately, it is imperative for large brands to understand the power of public positioning and align themselves with ethical and social values, especially when facing global challenges like this one. The brands that successfully navigate these complex waters will not only gain consumer trust but also strengthen their positions in the market.”

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