Last month, a large Vancouver grocery store, East West Market, tried something new to promote the use of reusable bags.
The store shamed customers who didn’t bring a reusable bag by giving them plastic bags that say embarrassing things like “Colon Care” or “Wart Ointment.” The goal was to motivate customers to bring their own bags out of fear of having to use the embarrassing plastic bags.
It backfired. Local shoppers came in looking to get the embarrassing plastic bags, NPR reports, because they’re humorous. The bags became collector’s items. East West Market owner David Kwen tells NPR it’s all good: “It creates conversation, and that's what we actually wanted to get across to the general public.”
East West Market is just one store in Canada, but the story reflects a larger trend in business these days: companies are not only willing to stand for certain social issues, but in many cases they’re eager to make that stand obvious.
“Firms are finding their ‘woke’ values,” says Scott Galloway, an NYU marketing professor. “While our government right now is over-represented on the conservative side, all the money is flowing to urban centers, non-traditional nuclear families, college grads, that’s someone who’s a progressive. So Nike, Dick’s, all these firms are finding their woke values. It’s not principle-led, it’s shareholder-driven.”
Galloway is referencing Nike’s recent alignment with Colin Kaepernick, a move that supporters and critics alike interpreted as Nike endorsing the cause of Kaepernick, who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem as a way to bring attention to police brutality in America.
When Nike unveiled its Kaepernick ad campaign last September, critics said it was a big risk, and many conservatives threatened to boycott the brand. But the stock hit a new all-time high just days later, and Foursquare data showed that foot traffic to Nike stores rose after the campaign launched. Nike again found itself at the center of the culture wars this month when it yanked its July 4 sneaker bearing the Betsy Ross version of the American flag after Kaepernick and others deemed it racist. Again Nike was criticized by conservatives, but again the stock rose in the days that followed and Nike largely emerged unscathed.
As for Dick’s, the sporting goods chain stopped selling assault-style rifles at its Field & Stream stores last year, leading to an outcry from critics, but the stock rose. This year, Dick’s continued down the same path by removing hunting items from 125 Dick’s stores.
Dick’s management said the move was a business decision prompted by the category underperforming, but it has also largely been seen as a political move in an era of heightened debate over gun safety following multiple school shootings.
Pulled into the culture wars
In the past two years, a slew of brands have telegraphed their values by choosing to issue statements after being inadvertently pulled into the culture wars.
Tic Tac, after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was caught on tape in 2016 saying he would pop a Tic Tac before kissing a woman without asking, chose to issue a statement calling the comments “completely inappropriate” and clarifying that Tic Tac “respects all women.”
Tiki, after white nationalists toted Tiki torches during the violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, issued a statement to say, “We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”
And Bank of America last month announced it will stop financing private prisons and detention centers, following other big-name banks including SunTrust, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
Given the growing political tension in America in 2019, the corporate trend, for now, is only likely to continue and intensify.
Daniel Roberts is a senior writer and on-air host at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.