As the Trump administration continues its full-press overhaul of government policies, from immigration to health care to financial regulation, U.S. businesses and their CEOs are finding themselves caught in the middle of the vitriolic, social media-fueled crossfire between the new president’s supporters and his opponents.
And it’s not just verbal sniping. Consumer activists are threatening boycotts and other actions against those companies they believe are backing the wrong policies.
The latest to tread that perilous terrain? Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank.
Plank spoke highly of Trump’s business agenda Tuesday on CNBC’s “Fast Money Halftime Report.”
“To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country. People can really grab that opportunity,” Plank said. “He wants to build things, he wants to make bold decisions and be really decisive. I’m a big fan of people that operate in the world of publish and iterate versus think, think, think, think, think. So there’s a lot that I respect there.”
Plank’s comments quickly spread across social media and led to calls for boycotts of the Baltimore-based brand. Plank’s comments also came as a stark contrast to its main rival, Nike, which has been critical of Trump, and of scores of technology companies — including such icons as Google and Facebook — that are opposing Trump’s refugee and travel ban.
“Just sold @UnderArmour stock after reading Kevin Plank’s adoring biz praise of @POTUS. Biz sense w/o character is bad business! #badbiz,” said one tweet.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Under Armour was on Grab Your Wallet’s list of “FYI Companies.” Those are companies that are not part of the organization’s boycott but “may also be of interest to #GrabYourWallet participants,” according to the website.
Grab Your Wallet started out on Twitter under a hashtag with the same name and has now become a resource tracking business’ ties to Trump family. The organization also credits a dozen companies for getting dropped from its boycott list for cutting ties with the Trumps. Grab Your Wallet did not respond to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, Under Armour was forced to respond to the backlash.
“We engage in policy, not politics,” Under Armour said. “We believe in advocating for fair trade, an inclusive immigration policy that welcomes the best and the brightest and those seeking opportunity in the great tradition of our country, and tax reform that drives hiring to help create new jobs globally, across America and in Baltimore.”
Under Armour may have little to fear. In general, studies show, boycotts are something people say they will do but don’t necessarily follow through on.
“They (consumers) think that they should have a say in what the company does and the way they can do that is with their dollars. We do them because we feel strongly about social issues, but we’re also kind of lazy as consumers,” said Rebecca Trump, assistant professor of marketing specializing in consumer psychology and behavior at the Loyola University Sellinger School of Business. (She is not related to the president.)
One of the most famous company boycotts was during the Nestle infant formula scandal in which the company was accused of getting mothers in developing countries hooked on formula.
“It was very successful because there were enough people outraged with the company,” Trump said.
For example, until recently, Nordstrom was on Grab Your Wallet’s boycott list for carrying Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. This week, the luxury retailer announced it would no longer carry the first daughter’s brand, citing dwindling sales, though one could argue the consumer boycott was a contributor. The president fired off a critical tweet of Nordstrom’s decision on Wednesday.
Seeing Under Armour caught in politics was unusual.
“Under Armour has strong PR so they think about their relationship with the press. I’m actually surprised that they even decided to comment on it. Even if a boycott doesn’t hurt, why bother putting your neck out there and taking a stance on issues that can be so divisive?” Rebecca Trump said. “Bad press is still bad press in the market.”
Plank’s comments were also perceived as a stark political contrast to an internal letter Under Armour rival Nike sent to employees following Trump’s executive order banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries last month, criticizing the president’s decision.
From a consumer perspective, boycotts in general are tricky because circumstances can dictate a person’s ability to boycott a company. For example, some companies might be difficult to boycott, such as people who said they will boycott Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch for their Super Bowl ads.
Furthermore, when people have brand loyalties, they tend to tune out negative press. If a person preferred Nike over Under Armour, a boycott is easy to do. However, if a person is loyal to Under Armour, they are more likely to tune out Plank’s comments, Trump said.