Is the Goya Consumer Boycott an Overreaction?

Using thin-sliced political outrage in buying choices hurts consumer welfare.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

“Un excelente trabajo me gustó mucho daban comida gratis.” (An excellent job, I really liked that they provided free food). – Ex-Goya employee reviewing their job on Indeed.com.

The wellspring of empathy is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Imagine you are a truck driver in Webster, Massachusetts, or a forklift operator in Secaucus, New Jersey, working at a stable, reasonably-paid job for one of the largest privately-owned food companies in the United States. One weekday afternoon, your company’s CEO (whom you have never met or know anything about) praises the sitting president effusively in a ceremonial event about a Hispanic Prosperity Initiative at the White House. The event’s pomp and pageantry seem a universe away from the hard reality of your sweaty physical labor. But the whole thing appears benign: business leaders have praised presidents at such events for centuries.

Brooke Winters/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Brooke Winters/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Over the next few hours, however, you watch in horror as the social media explodes with tweets and posts of outrage and vitriol from politicians and social influencers, vowing never to buy your company’s products again. By the end of the week, columnists and experts in mainstream media are supporting the boycott, disparaging your products, and gleefully predicting your employer’s demise. Suddenly, for no fault of your own, your livelihood, finances, and indeed your entire future, along with that of thousands of your coworkers, is shrouded in uncertainty.

Politically-motivated consumer boycotts are becoming more common

In the past few years, as political divisiveness has grown, consumer boycotts of large, well-established brands have become more common. Many of them arise from seemingly minor, one-time political transgressions by a single individual (often a senior executive of the company) or from a particular company decision. (By political transgression, I mean a decision or action that contravenes the views about an issue held by one of the two political parties). The boycott of Goya products by Democratic supporters because the company’s President Bob Unanue praised President Trump effusively in a White House ceremony is only the latest such incident. Here are three other recent examples of politically-motivated consumer boycotts:

Given space constraints, this is a short and admittedly incomplete list of politically-motivated boycotts, but it supports two important points. First, politically-motivated boycotts can be instigated by supporters of either political party. And second, they are often driven by very thin slices of corporate decisions or behavior. They ignore the context and nuances of the issue and the scope of the repercussions stemming from the boycott.

Politically-motivated boycotts take the form: “You behaved badly in this one specific way. I am never going to buy your products again, ever!” where "you" refers to a company or organization.

No doubt, such boycotts give a lot of mileage to the politicians and social media influencers who call for them. They generate tweets, shares, likes, and memes among the targeted base of consumers. Calling for a boycott is an effective tactic to gain publicity and legitimacy for its organizers. Unfortunately, boycotts can end up harming consumer and employee welfare of boycotted companies in significant and extremely unfair ways. 

How boycotting Goya products may hurt consumers’ welfare

A fundamental principle of consumer decision making is that smart purchase choices should be based on attributes that will provide the greatest value and enhance the consumption experience.

Leighann Blackwood/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Leighann Blackwood/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Accordingly, a can of pinto beans or coconut water (two products sold by Goya) should be chosen based on factors like taste, freshness, nutritional content, the source of ingredients, and price that are the core properties of the product. Beyond these core properties, also known as functional attributes, a whole array of emotional characteristics also matter. For the Goya brand, these attributes have to do with consumers' nostalgia, culture, and self-identity. As commentator Raul Reyes points out,

“Latinos have a unique relationship with Goya Foods because Latinos love Goya products. They remind people of their grandmother’s favorite recipe or delicious holiday meals. For some immigrants, Goya’s products are literally a taste of home.”

To these powerful, evocative connections, add the fact that Goya employs hundreds of Latinos in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. These are all enduring positive associations cultivated by the Goya brand over the years and even decades.

For non-Latino consumers, the Goya brand conveys authenticity because of the positive reactions of Latino consumers, creating a preference advantage for the brand across consumer segments. With the accumulated knowledge structure of positive associations and a strong relationship with the brand, going forward, the critical question for a loyal Goya shopper to consider is the following:

“Are all these positive functional and emotional benefits that Goya delivers to me along with the accumulated goodwill to be wiped out by a single utterance by the company’s President?”

Will it be: “One strike and you are out?”

Decision researchers call the act of rejecting the Goya brand permanently based on its CEO’s utterance as an instance of single-attribute non-compensatory choice. Essentially, it means that just one aspect of the brand (its CEO professing his admiration for President Trump) was considered in making a permanent rejection decision, and everything else about it was ignored entirely.  Decision-makers usually employ single-attribute non-compensatory choice to weed out options when there are far too many of them, not to decide whether to maintain an existing relationship with a well-loved brand. In the latter case, the history and goodwill that the brand has accumulated matter to the decision-maker.

What’s more, regardless of political affiliation (Democrat or Republican), using thin-sliced outrage instigated by politicians and social media influencers with their own ulterior motives is quite likely to lead consumers to make purchase choices that are not just bad for their personal and familial well-being but also for their pocketbooks.

The bottom line: As consumers, the more weight we give to thin-sliced, momentary political considerations in our decision calculus about what to buy and what not to buy, the less weight we will place on attributes that should really matter to us for our well-being like the item’s quality and price and how it compares to other available options. We will sever ties with beloved brands and products and reduce the overall quality of our consumption and life experience. Perhaps without meaning to, we will also unfairly and permanently harm the financial well-being of countless hard-working employees of the boycotted companies for no fault of theirs.

And worst of all, as this perverse decision-making calculus takes hold in a zero-tolerance, no-room-for-error, politically divisive climate, we will unintentionally distract the managers and employees of the brands we love and buy away from their focus of providing us with products and services that deliver the greatest value. In many contexts, including for most purchase decisions, taking a political stand is only important because politicians and social media influencers with vested interests tell us it is so.