Aurora Magazine

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Branding in a Time of Boycotts

Rather than pretend it is not happening, brands facing boycotts need to learn to connect with their audiences in a more meaningful manner, argues Nadeem F. Paracha.
Published 10 May, 2024 10:24am

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) was formed in the early 2000s as a movement to initiate economic sanctions and boycotts against Israel. The movement has continued to oppose Israel’s aggressive policies against the Palestinians by using non-violent means, shaped to undermine the country’s economic interests.

BDS began to attract media attention when well-known personalities, including intellectuals, politicians, musicians and scientists, declared their support, sometimes at the expense of being labelled ‘anti-Semitic’.

BDS disposed of great nuisance value, but since last year, it found wider traction in the wake of Israel’s unprecedented military campaign in Gaza, which has so far killed over 30,000 people; most of them unarmed men, women and children. As an increasing number of people began to adopt BDS tactics, the movement used social media to roll out lists of commercial brands which BDS accused of “profiting from the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

The impact of boycotting brands can be immediate, but it eventually withers away (until the next boycotting ‘trend’) and BDS is expected to suffer a similar fate. However, it is also by far the most effective movement and has left numerous giant brands nervous and unsure about how to respond.

The same has been the case in Pakistan, where some established brands manufactured by global corporate giants have suffered losses due to the recent boycott campaigns. No doubt these companies are hoping that this too shall pass, although there is every likelihood of such campaigns becoming more frequent due to governments in the ‘global north’ struggling to chalk out a convincing dual policy both appeasing and bemoaning Israeli actions. As the statistics of losses made by giant brands continue to increase, the belief in the power of brand boycotts is growing.

Global brands often ‘localise’ their products and services to suit the cultural realities of the regions they operate in. However, this has not saved them from the impact of the recent BDS wave. In fact, some brands are now trying to seed the fact (albeit quietly) that in the ‘global south’, they have created millions of new local jobs and economic opportunities. However, the locals working for these brands would love to see the brands condemn the violence in Gaza, but this is an impossibility because the brands are tightly tied to the economic and political interests of ‘pro-Israel’ corporate giants.

BDS is now organising a campaign to further strengthen boycotting sprees. Boycotts are largely emotional in nature and this is what makes them so tough to tackle. In Pakistan, many global brands have been losing business and are starting to be challenged by local brands. Of course, the impacted brands have been wise not to mention anything about the boycott. A response would only strengthen the boycott narrative. But if such boycotts become more frequent, these brands will not be able to entirely ignore these boycotts because they will impact their image and business. So, what is the way out?

Brands need to understand the sentiments of those who boycott them. Only once they do so, will they then be able to shape an appropriate strategy and message. They need to be strong enough to address the issue, but without directly referring to the boycott. Easier said than done.

When people boycott a brand (especially due to a political or humanitarian issue), they are expressing outrage – and they find alternatives to the boycotted brand and in doing so, feel they are contributing to a cause. Such acts are called ‘simulated subversion.’ Simulated subversion is when one simulates an act without actually being in the field where the actual subversion is taking place. For example, (because of Israeli atrocities in Gaza), when a person boycotts a cola giant and starts to consume a local cola brand, the person feels he/she is subverting the power of a cola giant. This is a simulated act which fills the person with the emotion of being part of something noble and powerful.

Brands facing boycotts need to shape directions and messages that trigger a similar emotion. It can’t just be about superior quality and service. When a person consumes the brand, he/she needs to feel that they are a part of something bigger and the message should not only be about instant gratification related to the product; it should be about the fulfilment of a deeper emotion.

When someone decides to drink a local cola rather than a giant cola, he/she is fulfilling a desire to punish Israel. How can boycotted brands match this? Going under the radar for a while is at best a temporary strategy – especially with the possibility of boycott campaigns becoming more frequent. Responding directly to the boycott can further exacerbate the situation. So, brands facing boycotts need to connect in a more meaningful manner, instead of continuing to depend on the rather stereotypical understanding of ‘emotion’ that dominates brand and communication strategies of most brands in Pakistan.

Nadeem F. Paracha is Head of Ideas & Research, Adcom Leo Burnett. He is also a published author and a weekly columnist for Dawn.