Aurora Magazine

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Why the Boycott Won’t Work

Why supporting Palestine through a blanket boycott of all foreign brands won't work in a country like Pakistan, explains S. Hyder.
Updated 05 Jan, 2024 03:41pm

Ever since October 7, there has been a spirited conversation on social media about boycotting certain brands. Initially, it was the BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) list that was shared widely and which later somehow became a blanket boycott of all foreign brands, because for some reason people decided that all foreign brands were Israeli brands. A sign of the internet taking over common sense. The cynic in me doesn’t see this boycott working. The nature of consumers and of the market simply doesn’t allow for it.

As a nation, we are incredibly brand-conscious, with a bias towards foreign brands. I remember two instances in the past regarding multinational companies, where the products were imported. In both cases (several years apart) it seemed a good idea to have the usage instructions in Urdu. After several rounds with the regional team, the new packs were delivered. Two months later, sales dropped – because people thought the product was now made locally. We all know people who insist we buy certain shampoos, creams or chocolates from abroad because their quality will be better than that of the same brands available in Pakistan. That is how brand-conscious we are.

There are no viable alternatives in the market. Do you really see women switching from Pantene or Sunsilk to Bio Amla or Golden Pearl?

The best intentions lasted barely a month. Since then, queries in FB groups seek alternatives to KFC and McDonald’s, toiletries and coffee. The lack of local alternatives is increasingly evident. Within weeks, people started whining about the quality of Kaybees fried chicken and Mr Burger, forgetting the passionate pleas to buy local. The lack of knowledge about what constitutes an Israeli brand is also painfully evident. Not all foreign brands are Israeli. Another laughable convo in one FB group was related to coffee, with one person enthusiastically promoting Jacobs Coffee over Nescafé, blissfully unaware that both are European brands. The foreign franchises have started filling up again. A trip to McDonald’s is not only about convenience (drive through), and value (more affordable than top quality local outlets), but entertainment as well (Happy Meals, Play Area). Rather reluctantly, folks are beginning to realise that Gourmet Cola is not the same as Pepsi or Coke.

And once again, all foreign brands are not ‘Israeli’-owned. In fact, most of them are not. Not to mention the complete lack of understanding of how franchises work. McDonald’s is a franchise. Every local partner pays a fee to use the branding and product recipes. The profits stay put. In Pakistan, the chain has nearly 80 outlets and 10,000 employees. If the McDonald’s franchise in Israel decided to feed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), that is their prerogative, and similarly, the one in Pakistan can decide to feed the Pakistan Army, if it wants to. Those 80 outlets will not be able to simply rebrand and ‘sell the same product’ as suggested by some keyboard warriors, because they will not be at liberty to do so. And the stories circulating about the last McDonald’s burger in Bosnia need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The brand pulled out of Bosnia because the local franchise was not able to maintain quality. Additionally, the posts gleefully talking about the 70% drop in sales of many chains are completely unverified. FYI next time, check the source.

Therefore, both the cynic and the realist in me say, the boycott will not last. And in Pakistan, it should not last (a country with a collapsed economy cannot take any more hits). We do not have the will for it, we do not have the habits for it, and we simply do not have the alternative brands to switch to.

S. Hyder is a creative working at a Pakistani advertising agency.