Consumers Prefer Ice Cream and Sandwiches to Middle East Politics and Olympic Protests
8/9/21 – – Two purveyors of popular food items have been feeling the heat from customers and franchise owners upset with the companies’ recent political actions and expressions. Ben & Jerry’s announced in July that it would no longer sell its ice cream in Israel’s occupied territories, and the Subway fast food chain launched a TV advertising campaign during the Olympics featuring activist U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Fair or not, Ben & Jerry’s stance is being interpreted as anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) and Subway’s marketing is being labeled anti-American.
What can we learn from these reputational storms?
Readers of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient are familiar with my warnings to companies stepping into the minefield of politics. It’s one of the nine most common sources of corporate crises discussed in Chapter 3, “Where Crises Come From”: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy, Past.
In today’s polarized, intolerant environment, most political stands will warm the hearts of 50-percent of your customers, while infuriating the other half. There’s no question that consumers like doing business with companies that share their values and beliefs. But they are even more adamant about rejecting products and services from companies with which they disagree. Bottom line: There is no way for a company with a broad customer base (like Ben & Jerry’s and Subway) to pick a political fight without alienating customers – lots of customers.
Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have never been shy about their social and political beliefs. Since its founding in 1978 the company has been vocal on issues ranging from the healthiest diet for cows to war and peace. When the company was acquired by Unilever in 2000, the purchase agreement recognized Ben & Jerry’s independence and right “to take decisions about its social mission.”
But in today’s hyper-sensitive environment, the company’s actions in Israel struck a nerve. Thirty Ben & Jerry’s franchise owners representing more than $23 million in annual sales sent a strong open letter to Unilever demanding that the policy be “re-examined and withdrawn,” claiming that “neighbors and other businesses we work with have shamed us personally,” and that the decision had “imposed and will continue to impose substantial financial costs on all of us.”
The franchisees insist that, “The imposition of such narrow prescriptions does not advance social justice or the pursuit of a values-led business in any meaningful way,” concluding: “Those who feel strongly about Israel that they want to boycott it or some part of the territory it administers are free to do so. They cannot, however, do that at our expense.”
A letter written by the North American Association of Subway Franchisees to the company’s CEO struck a similar tone, questioning the marketing decision to feature Megan Rapinoe as a spokesperson, an athlete who takes a knee whenever the U.S. national anthem is played – even when representing our country at the Tokyo Olympics.
An Arizona Subway franchise owner, responding to mounting customer complaints and declining sales since the Rapinoe spots began to air, protested, “Spending our money to make a political statement is completely and totally out of bounds.” Another franchisee suggested that the company help improve the quality of the bread served in Subway restaurants before pursuing what he considered “woke” relationships.
I believe the lesson here for companies and crisis counselors is clear: In today’s toxic political environment it doesn’t matter whether Ben & Jerry’s is right or wrong about its stance on Israel’s occupied territories, or Subway is right or wrong to align itself with the positions of Megan Rapinoe. Entering the briar patch of political activism has consequences. And those consequences can be destructive and expensive.
So, the next time you’re tempted to take a political stand in the name of your company, weigh both the upside and the downside . . . and first consider focusing your attention on improving the quality of your bread.