The #BoycottNRA social media movement has prompted a fast-growing list of companies -- from the First National Bank of Omaha to Enterprise rental cars -- to end partnerships with the gun lobby group. But amid all the talk of avoiding purchases from companies affiliated with the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of the massacre in Parkland, Fla., plenty of consumers are also planning to do a lot of buying.
For instance, after actress Alyssa Milano suggested a one-day boycott on Thursday, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin tweeted “Gun-owners & #2A activists: Time to BUYcott,” while the conservative blog RedState dubbed Thursday “Buycott Day.”
Then, following the announcement by Dick’s Sporting Goods on Wednesday that it would stop selling guns to people under 21, no longer sell assault-style firearms and ban high-capacity magazines from its stores, social media was flooded with users ready for a shopping spree at the outdoor retailer. “I know where the Coine family is shopping this weekend,” wrote one Twitter user. “Bravo, @DICKS!”
The term “buycott” is hardly new — it’s been used over the years to explain efforts by conservative and liberal consumers to spend money in support of companies with which they agree, especially as a counter-protest to those boycotting the same brands. And in a broader sense, the term is related to the concept of critical consumption or consumer activism, in which marketers recognize consumers' increasing interest in buying from companies that have expressed beliefs that fit with their own.
But new research from the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick suggests the tactic of "buycotting" iss gaining steam — and may overtake boycotts as the most prevalent way consumers vote with their dollars.
"I feel strongly that we’re seeing the infancy of this whole 'buycotting' movement," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick. "Boycotts are not going away, but people are really making choices about the brands and the companies they want to support and a lot of it has to do with politics or social issues."
In a report released Jan. 30, the firm surveyed 2,000 U.S. and British consumers who had taken at least one of nine actions in response to something that a company or brand did. Fifty-nine percent of these more activist-minded consumers said it was more important than ever to participate in consumer boycotts, while far more — 83 percent — said it was more important now to support companies they believe “do the right thing” and buy from them.
Even among those who had taken part in some kind of boycotting, a greater share said supporting companies with purchases (or “buycotting,” at 79 percent) was what mattered most rather than boycotting (62 percent).
The demographics were also different among consumers surveyed, Weber Shandwick found. Those who supported companies they liked with their dollars were more likely to be women (56 percent, compared to 47 percent of boycotters), and were often younger (41 percent were part of the millennial or Gen Z generations, versus 33 percent of boycotters), reflecting two popular demographics for marketers.
That suggests one reason companies may be more willing to speak out about their social views or wade into controversial topics than in the past. The strategy of attracting consumers who are willing to spend more — by taking a stand on an issue or expressing how a company views a social issue — may better position brands than the strategy of remaining neutral to avoid “boycotters" who may not have spent money with them anyways.
Gaines-Ross points to Patagonia, which saw an uptick in brand perception and a reported sales jump last year after it changed its web site's landing page to read "The President stole your land" following a Trump administration order to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. According to data from Slice Intelligence, which measures online shopping, the company's online web sales at non-Patagonia retailers in the days following the news were 7 percent higher than the same days during the previous week. And that week included Cyber Monday, when many retailers offer post-Thanksgiving online sales promotions. (An email to Patagonia was not immediately returned.)
"One of the common comments that came out after that is 'I’m just going to go buy some more fleece,' " Gaines-Ross said.
Meanwhile, in 2012, furor over comments favoring traditional marriage by the president of Chick-fil-A led to a buycott as conservatives flocked to the fast-food chain's locations. A call by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to create a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" resulted in long lines and what a spokesman described as "record-setting" sales.
Gaines-Ross said she and her colleagues see other evidence that the concept is gaining steam. Both liberal and conservative consumer activist efforts, such as #Grabyourwallet and 2ndVote.com, offer "alternative" or "safe" brands for consumers to buy from instead of just listing those to avoid. And she pointed to an app called Buycott that was started in 2013 and directs users to campaigns on different issues. Founder Ivan Pardo said he's seen a roughly 400 percent increase in downloads over the past seven days, amid the #BoycottNRA effort, compared with the same period last month.
According to data from Sprout Social, the term 'buycott' has been used on Twitter 4,472 times in February. While not huge, that's more than any of the last six months.
The Weber Shandwick survey showed plenty of overlap between people who decided to buy goods to support their favorite brands and those who refrained from buying -- and clearly, the two practices can cancel each other out. It also doesn't provide much clarity about when something is actually a "buycott" (an active purchase of something from a company with similar values) versus simply a more passively chosen substitute brand for whatever is being boycotted.
Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's business school, said one reason buycotts may be gaining traction is that the act of purchasing is often tied with a consumer's identity, and may make consumers feel like they can have more influence.
"How can you be effective as a citizen? People are looking toward the market to express themselves, and feel like they can influence their world," she said.
One reason consumers may be favoring "buycotting" as a strategy could be that it "ends up being more tangible and more identity-relevant," she said. "With boycotting, there's nothing you can express yourself with."
In Weber Shandwick's survey, they also found that "buycotters" say they plan to be more active, with 37 percent saying they plan to shop in line with their beliefs, compared with only 28 percent of boycotters.
"Something very different is happening -- it's not only let's boycott one brand, but it’s giving you the idea of who to support," Gaines-Ross said. "People want to support and be constructive and use their spending power in supportive ways."