(credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A few months ago, I had drinks with a friend who was visiting from out of town. We were laughing, then his face got serious. “I have a question,” he said. “Do I have to get rid of my New Balances?”
It was mid-November, just a few weeks after the election when the sneaker company’s VP of public affairs got himself into trouble by telling a Wall Street Journal reporter that he supported Trump as a candidate because of his position on TPP. Liberals responded by encouraging a boycott of New Balance and in the most dramatic cases, posted videos of themselves burning their sneakers on social media. My friend, a proud progressive, wanted to know if wearing his new shoes, purchased just a few weeks before the scandal, would brand him as a Trump supporter.
I told him to wait it out. In a few weeks, people would barely remember that time that the New Balance VP put his foot in his mouth by weighing in on politics.
It turns out, I was right and I was wrong. As far as I can tell, the anti-New Balance wrath has died down, although the company, along with FORBES, still appears on a website called Grab Your Wallet that encourages retail activism in the form of boycotting companies that do business with the Trumps or have pro-Trump leadership.
However, since the New Balance story broke, companies have been more – not less – inclined to speak out on political and social issues. It’s as if America’s corporate leaders have suddenly decided that advocacy is more important than profits. Or conversely, they're being savvy, recognizing that we’re so divided as a nation at this point that customers want to know whether they’re buying red or blue.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Irma Zandl, a veteran trend forecaster and branding expert told me. Just this past week, footwear giants Nike and Adidas both released statements condemning President Trump’s controversial executive order banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, including war-torn Syria. Starbucks, Apple, Netflix and Facebook, among others, have all publicly opposed the ban, with the coffee giant’s CEO Howard Schultz pledging to hire 10,000 refugees. Supporters of the new president and his policies are angrily responding on Twitter: “New Balance makes a much better running sneaker anyway,” one detractor wrote, using the increasingly popular hashtag, #BoycottNike.
Meanwhile, Uber is getting it from both sides, after the ride sharing company lifted surge pricing near JFK airport last Saturday during the protests. This gave the impression that it was capitalizing on the strike of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which was collectively protesting the travel ban. Although Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has since publicly called the executive order “unjust,” and even promised $3 million to the legal defense of immigrant drivers, the damage had already been done and #DeleteUber was trending. The company has been added to Grab Your Wallet’s list – but Kalanick’s statement ruffled feathers on the right, too.
So, when it comes to big business, is speaking up worth the risk? Yesterday, Business of Fashion’s founder and CEO Imran Amed published an editorial called “Fashion Industry Remains Silent at Trump’s Immigration Ban,” warning that “as the Trump brand becomes increasingly unpalatable to people around the world, the risk of being seen to support, even implicitly, his administration’s policies is rising.” On the other hand, a writer for Bloomberg View advises that businesses should be wary of speaking out against the president. “While boycotts are perhaps easier to organize than they used to be, what with social network pressure and the ease of deleting an app from a phone, the storm will likely blow over,” Leonid Bershidsky, a journalist familiar with Putin’s Russia, writes. “On the other hand, voicing opposition to Trump could provoke lasting damage” – by way of direct retribution from the Commander in Chief, he says.
Zandl, meanwhile, describes herself as “old-school when it comes to introducing politics into business – I don’t think it’s a good idea.” After all, my friend never would have contemplated ditching his New Balances if the company brass had stayed quiet. But for those businesses that do feel inclined to air their political leanings, Zandl says that social media outrage tends to be superficial. “So much of the hashtag politicking is uninformed and lemming-like. Right now, people are dumping Uber for Lyft - but Lyft’s major funders are Peter Thiel and Carl Icahn - both major Trump supporters. So….what has ultimately been achieved?”
Increasingly, consumers want to feel that their dollars support businesses that reflect their personal values, whether it’s buying eco-conscious products or spending extra for Made in America. But a wildly divisive administration has the potential to codify our retail choices in unprecedented ways. Is a Starbucks cup the next donkey pin? That remains to be seen.
Rachelle Bergstein , CONTRIBUTOR