Goya beans and Nikes: The impact of politics on brands

Goya beans and Nikes: The impact of politics on brands

Kyle Endres, now associate director of UNI’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research, arrived at UNI this fall after postdoctoral work at Duke and Fordham Universities. His research focuses on a hot topic in electoral politics - how campaigns and interest groups are using data analytics to influence behavior. In a recently published study, Endres flipped the script, teaming up with colleagues at Northeastern and Columbia to see how three companies - Apple, Macy’s and Nike - were impacted by tweets from President Donald J. Trump. The team used sophisticated daily brand-tracking surveys to find that the effects were powerful and polarizing. 

What is the history of presidential influence on brands? Are those intersections between brands and politics like Goya Beans and others unique in recent history?Kyle Endres

There are multiple brands that have suddenly become politicized during and before the Trump presidency. However, we do not always have access to high-quality survey data to monitor shifts in opinion (towards the brand) following the politicization. In fact, there were other brands that we wanted to include in our study, but we were only able to access daily public opinion tracking data for the four brands in order to monitor how evaluations of the brand changed and how long that change persisted.

How do brands view the phenomenon? If a political figure supports a brand does that mean their political opponents abandon it and vice versa?

How brands view politically motivated shopping and eating is not something we address in this study, but I think it is safe to say that companies want to make money and try to avoid any actions that will interfere with that goal.

It is not always the case that when one party calls for a boycott that the other major party immediately calls for a buycott. One of the brands featured in the paper – Apple – is an example where both Democrats and Republicans moved in the same direction. As you might recall, in 2016, then candidate Donald Trump called for a boycott of Apple when Apple refused to follow a court order to assist the FBI with unlocking the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernadino attacks. This case differs from the other brands in the study as prominent Democratic AND Republican officials spoke out against Apple on social media and in the traditional press. In this instance, we did not observe polarization in public opinion towards Apple. Instead the public opinion data shows that perceptions of Apple declined among both Democrats and Republicans. In the other three examples, self-identified Democrats and Republicans trended in opposite directions.

Is a trend of presidential influence on brands one you see continuing into the next political cycle and beyond? 

It likely depends on the personality of future presidents. However, using social media to publicly call for or endorse a boycott or buycott is not a phenomena unique to Donald Trump. President Trump has one of the most followed Twitter accounts (former President Barack Obama is the only other American politician that has more Twitter followers than President Trump), but other politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) also engage brands on social media.

You mentioned Goya, where recently there were calls from Democrats to boycott Goya products and from Republicans to buycott Goya products. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, for example, was one of the first to tweet about Goya foods following the CEO’s pro-Trump comments. Other members of Congress have also called for boycotts of companies and brands due to their support of President Trump. Congressman Joaquin Castro from Texas comes to mind – in 2019, he prompted boycott calls when he used his Twitter account to criticize businesses owned by his constituents who had contributed to Donald Trump’s campaign.

What do you see as the takeaways from your study?

Brands are not immune from partisan considerations and should be careful when engaging in politics unless their customer base is overwhelmingly composed of supporters from one party. When a brand suddenly becomes entangled in partisan politics, either through their own actions or when a polarizing figure, such as Donald Trump, praises or criticizes that brand, public opinion towards the brand can diverge with Democrats and Republicans moving in opposite directions. This study evaluated changes in public opinion toward four brands – Apple, Macy’s, Nike, and Nordstrom – when Donald Trump either explicitly or implicitly endorsed a boycott of that brand.  In all cases, ordinary Americans who self-identify as Republicans suddenly viewed the brands more negatively while self-identified Democrats viewed the brands more favorably. Apple is the lone exception with both self-identified Democrats and Republicans viewing the brand more negatively following criticisms from Donald Trump AND prominent Democratic elected officials.

Anything else notable you'd like readers to know?

I want to thank my study coauthors, Don Green and Costas Panagopoulos. The article is forthcoming in “Political Research Quarterly” and can be accessed on their website.

I will be teaching Public Opinion & Voting Behavior (POL AMER 3150) this spring. The course will examine the dynamics of mass opinion and voting behavior in the United States. Students will learn about current and foundational research in the field while gaining practical skills in the design and analysis of public opinion surveys.