Post-Trump, businesses find themselves in voter crosshairs

Voters are increasingly taking out their post-election feelings on businesses they view as pro- or anti-Trump

From Fifth Avenue to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, American businesses are finding themselves in the middle of a post-election minefield as consumers vent their election frustrations through their pocketbooks. 

Consumers are expressing their Trump views through boycotts as well as calls to support businesses they believe are aligned with their own political positions. In some cases, fake news reports have falsely ascribed comments to corporate CEOs, causing consumers to pile on condemnation and vow to stop buying their products, as in the case of PepsiCo

While some businesses are trying to navigate the minefield by keeping out of the political discussion, others are jumping into the fray, such as Wauwatosa, Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices. Owner Bill Penzey sent out an email to his customers about what he described as “the open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election,” while describing cooking as a way to battle “racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Because the spice merchant has celebrated diversity for years, Penzey said he wanted to stand up for what he describes as his “core message” after Donald Trump’s victory. Then the floodgates opened and he was inundated with emails.

“If you are going to do something like this you have to be prepared for people use use salty language with you in emails,” he said, noting that he’s read about 5,000 emails but has yet to open another 20,000 or so. “We’ve gotten more mentions from different right-leaning radio programs, and that’s caused people who aren’t our customers to shout at us like they are our customers.”

While some conservative voters have sworn off buying Penzey’s spices, liberal consumers have taken up the banner, asking friends to support the company’s message by giving their spice gift boxes as gifts. That, Penzey said, was eye-opening. 

“I’m surprised how much this leads into gift box sales for us,” he said. “The number of people who want to share what we do has been tremendous.”

So far in November, its online sales of gift boxes have quadrupled, he said. The difference? Customers last year bought gift boxes with the sentiment of, “I couldn’t think of what to get you, so I got you this,” he said. That has been replaced with “Here’s this business I was telling you about,” Penzey said. “That difference means engagement from our customers.”

The post-election consumer landscape has transformed politics into a case study on cause marketing, which is when products align themselves with specific issues, usually related to charitable causes such as breast cancer awareness in October. Almost four out of five consumers will consider switching products if they believe a brand supports a specific cause, according to research from Cone Communications.  

Associating his business with ideals such as diversity, multiculturalism and humanism -- as well as pointedly eschewing Trump’s policies -- Penzey has tapped into that vein, gathering new customers that he might not have reached otherwise. “For people who are concerned about the future, to have a voice of support means so much to them,” Penzey said.

On the flip side of cause marketing sits the consumer boycott, which has also found fertile ground. The #GrabYourWallet boycott, which asks anti-Trump voters to snub products sold by the president-elect’s businesses or those of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, is continuing to pick up steam. Trump supporters, meanwhile, are rallying their own boycotts, as well as calls for supporting organizations viewed as friendly to their political outlook. 

Among the pro-Trump boycott targets are Amazon.com, which was founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who has been critical of Trump, and Oreos, which earned criticism from Trump during the campaign for moving some of its production capacity to Mexico, according to a list maintained on Reddit

And Reddit itself is now coming under fire, with CEO Steve Huffman revealing he edited posts on “the_donald” pro-Trump forum. Huffman said he replaced mentions of his name with the names of the forum’s leaders, so that they would receive the negative comments meant for him. 

It’s not always corporate executives who are choosing to wade into post-election politics. Some customers are using stores or corporate locations to make a political statement, such as in the case of a Trump supporter on a Delta flight to Pennsylvania. The man, who swore and yelled at fellow passengers who were Hillary Clinton voters, ended up banned for life by Delta Air Lines. The carrier also refunded the cost of tickets for all the other passengers. Delta CEO Ed Bastain said that his company wants to “require civility on our planes and in our facilities.”

That didn’t please some Trump supporters, who took to Delta’s Facebook page to protest the airline’s decision. “You banned a Trump supporter for life and refunded others.... how pathetic! We won’t be flying Delta anymore!” one customer wrote. Others called Delta’s decision “biased and bigoted” and defended the customer’s right to free speech. 

For restaurant owner Willie Degel, Trump’s victory has brought about a different type of turbulence. One of his Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse locations is right around the corner from Trump Towers, which has brought protesters to the front of his building, as well as decreased foot traffic because of extra security and barricades. He said his sales are down 20 to 25 percent as a result. 

“It’s been a hard thing because  November is a huge month for us,” Degel said, who voted for Trump because he said he believes the country needed a change. “You have your beliefs, but you want to attack me for my beliefs? I don’t think it’s right. I’m not going to not support your business because you don’t believe in something.”