A study of companies and boycotts shows the benefits of reaching out, even to those who might bite you.
General Electric started its Ecomagination initiative in 2004 with the strategy, “If you can’t beat environmentalists, join them.”
Turns out GE isn’t the only corporation to have engaged activists out of necessity and stumbled into increasing sales and positive experiences that changed corporate culture and leadership for the better.
In her book, “If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them: Corporate Sponsorship of Social Movement Boycotts,” Northwestern University Law Professor Mary-Hunter McDonnell analyzes hundreds of companies and boycotts and finds that reaching out to activist organizations is a pretty good thing – with potentially lasting value.
In 2004, Nordstrom and other retailers joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a boycott over shearing practices in the Australian wool industry.
In this and other examples, firms chose to join with activists because their reputation was being harmed and the boycotts were taking their toll on sales.
As a result, companies received positive publicity, built up goodwill and formed valuable alliances.
McDonnell’s research reminds us that:
- To reach people you have to know, define and understand them – even the segments that seem like a burr under your saddle.
- You and your company can often learn valuable things from the burrs.
- Engaging with a tough market segment makes it less likely that someone else will grab them (or leverage their issue).
Engaging with activists can spark innovation, improve products and processes and provide a story that enhances your brand and positively impacts sales.