File picture of a Nike ad in New York featuring Colin Kaepernick. The ad's theme of "Nelieve in something, even if it means sacrificing everything" angered some. Image Credit: AP

(Bloomberg): For consumer brands and companies in 2019, the internet has laid bare two bewildering realities: It’s nearly impossible to stay out of politics. And when there is even a hint of political controversy, the outrage machine will spin itself into high gear.

In the last year, hardly a week went by without some company finding itself at the center of a storm of online outrage: Most recently it was Peloton Interactive Inc. for a TV ad some saw as sexist. Months earlier, it was Walmart Inc. for changing its ammunition sales policy after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Before that, it was the boutique exercise chain SoulCycle answering for a major shareholder holding a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. In June, it was Wayfair Inc., for selling furniture that ended up in a migrant detention center. In January, it was Gillette for running ads about toxic masculinity.

Such episodes prompt a flood of snarky denunciations and boycott threats on Twitter and Facebook. Eventually, after a raft of performative posts (dropping sneakers in the trash, smashing coffeemakers), the hashtag - and the media attention - fade away.

And therein lies a lesson for corporate America: There is little evidence that these spasms of internet indignation cause a retailer long-term damage. Online chatter, it turns out, is a poor barometer of real-world consumer behavior.

The penalty for taking a political stand, in terms of lost sales or damaged reputation, is far lower than commonly believed “- if a company can manage it in a smart way.

Short memories

In April 2018, two black men were sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia waiting for an acquaintance. When they failed to order anything, a store manager eventually called police, who led them from the cafA(c) in handcuffs. The incident, which was captured on video and posted on Twitter, was particularly galling for Starbucks Corp., which claims to value diversity so much it once encouraged its baristas to initiate conversations about race with customers.

The fury flowed fast and furious on social media. A sample tweet: “I’d rather drink instant then give u one more dime of my interracial family’s money. Seems it doesn’t matter to u anyway #BoycottStarbucks.”

Starbucks has had to face its share of online campaigns, but left no dent on the numbers. Image Credit: Reuters

Back in the real world, however, customers largely stuck to their caffeine routines. In the days immediately following the incident, research firm GlobalData asked US adults what actions they intended to take toward Starbucks. Even then, with the story still fresh, most respondents didn’t plan to do anything.

No dip in buying

Researchers at YouGov regularly survey shoppers about brands. Their data show an interesting dichotomy: When a company gets ensnared in an outrage cycle, it often sees a decline in its “buzz score”, a measure of whether consumers are hearing something positive or negative about a brand. But purchase intent, a measure of how likely a shopper is to buy from a given brand, often barely budges at all, or at least doesn’t move as drastically as the buzz score.

It’s not entirely surprising, of course, that outrage surfaces frequently in online discussions of retailers and consumer brands. Outrage is the default mode of so much social media conversation, whether in politics or pop culture.

But these expressions are often no more than exercises in virtual virtue-signaling. This may be considered a drawback in politics - former President Barack Obama recently criticized young people for mistaking tweeting for activism - but that’s not necessarily the case for brands and retailers.

After all, why go to the trouble and expense of replacing your iPhone after the president calls for an Apple Inc. boycott when you can just hold forth about it on the internet? Once you get validation online, says Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied consumer boycotts, “it’s very easy to stop.”

Too many moving targets

There’s an additional consideration: The sheer volume of digital infernos makes it hard to stay focused on any one of them. It’s not just that the outrage is fleeting; it’s that it’s spread so thin.

Consider just how many targets US consumers have raged against online in recent years: Home Depot, over its co-founder’s support of President Donald Trump’s campaign. Walmart, for the aforementioned gun policy and for allowing “Impeach 45” t-shirts to show up on its website. Inc., for its worker policies.

H&M, for a photo of a kids’ sweatshirt that was perceived as racist. Prada, for Sambo-like monkey dolls. Pepsico Inc., for a commercial that was tone deaf about the Black Lives Matter movement. Nordstrom Inc., for dumping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.

You get the idea (and that’s just a sampling of the ire against retailers that sell stuff; there is a whole other backlash against Big Tech). Again: It may be disappointing to their supporters that so many of these campaigns flame out, at least in part because it’s simply too hard for most people to stay mad about so many things at once. But for the targets of the campaigns, there is safety in numbers.

It is entirely possible for consumer companies to take a stand and not end up the worse for it. For one, some issues are simply not that controversial.

So retailers should choose wisely which causes to champion. Sometimes this is easy, especially when brands have a clear identity and customer base. So Patagonia supports the environment, while Nike’s Kaepernick ad appeals to its young urban customers. But even if a retailer does wade (or get dragged) into a more divisive issue, there are effective playbooks.

After the El Paso shooting, for example, Walmart took a full month to revise its ammunition sales policies. And its overtures were incremental, not drastic: It said the lapsed assault weapons ban “should be debated” by Congress, for example, but didn’t go so far as to say it should be reinstated.

What were the consequences? Walmart just reported that US comparable sales rose 3.2 per cent from a year earlier in the latest quarter, a healthy increase that is on par with the growth it had been posting for two years before the incident. Executives said last month they had not seen signs of a backlash. It’s almost as if the whole thing never happened.

With a strong strategy, outrage cycles can be a footnote, not a chapter, in a company’s history. A bunch of enraged tweets are not a gauge of consumer sentiment or evidence of an actual boycott. However hot and bright these controversies flare online, in the real world they simply don’t leave much of a burn.