In other words, boycotts generally don’t do much to hurt corporate pocketbooks. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make an impact in other ways. Boycotts can be an effective tool for exerting social pressure, even when the financial impact is small.
As Brayden King of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University noted back in 2009, “A lot of research in the past has shown that they don’t necessarily affect their targets’ bottom lines that much. And it’s not clear that boycotts affect consumer behavior very much. But those boycotts that get some level of media attention are relatively successful in terms of getting some sort of concession out of their targets.”
The impact comes from the negative public relations hit, not a sagging bottom line. “Boycotters’ influence stems from their ability to make negative claims about the corporation that generate negative public perceptions of the corporation,” King’s research finds. “Hence, corporations that are already struggling to maintain their previously positive reputations will be more likely to concede to boycotts and quell any further damage the boycott may do to their reputation.”
The issue isn’t money. It’s perception and reputation. Which is probably why firms with strong reputations seem to generate a lot more media attention in response to boycotts. In a 2011 study, King looked at national media coverage of 133 boycotts organized between 1990 and 2005. Boycotts that went after well-liked firms with strong reputations generated a lot more media coverage—about 4.4 times as much as firms with no reputation and three times as much as those with poor reputations.