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Faith in boycotts: Can religious groups affect the bottom line? Add to ...

Steven Andrew says he used to be an “occasional” Starbucks customer. But these days, you won’t catch him with a grande latte in hand.

The pastor of San Jose, Calif.-based USA Christian Ministries has been urging his fellow Christians to boycott Starbucks because the coffee giant backed a Washington State bill, signed into law Feb. 13, to legalize same-sex marriage.

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Mr. Andrew’s stance against homosexuality is highly contentious. He says the multinational company should take note.

“Starbucks would be wise to have the support of the Christian church,” he says, adding that since announcing his boycott in late January, he’s received “a lot of positive response,” including from one priest who told him his church of 5,000 congregants is on board with the ban. “From a business perspective, I would like Starbucks and other companies ... to understand that it makes no sense to turn against the Christian majority in the U.S.A.”

In recent months, several faith-based groups in the United States have received considerable media attention on hot-button topics, like gay rights and Muslim issues, by harnessing the buying power of their followers to exert pressure on corporations. But while boycotts make headlines, they may not have much of an effect on a company’s bottom line.

Consumers and businesses should differentiate between calls for boycotts and actual boycotts, says Monroe Friedman, professor emeritus of psychology at Eastern Michigan University and author of the book Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and the Media. In other words: Is the campaign merely a media stunt or is it backed by real action?

According to Brayden King, assistant professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, boycotts don’t necessarily hurt companies’ sales revenues. That’s because it’s not easy for consumers to change their buying habits, even when they’re strongly ideologically aligned with a boycott, Dr. King says. Instead, he says, boycotts have the biggest impact when they provoke a lot of negative media coverage about the company, or when a company’s reputation is already in decline.

“This is why essentially boycotts are coercive, because they convince executives that there’s a reason to be concerned about their image in the public,” Dr. King says.

Through his research, he’s found that roughly 25 per cent of boycotts that receive national media coverage result in some kind of concession from the targeted company. “One out of four may not seem like a lot, but compared to other kinds of tactics that an activist group might use, it’s pretty high,” he says.

He also noted that religious-based groups tend to be twice as likely to use boycotts as other movements, like environmental or animal rights causes.

In recent weeks, a project of the conservative Christian American Family Association called One Million Moms has received widespread attention over its boycott of JCPenney, after the department store named talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeswoman. Ms. DeGeneres is openly gay. JCPenney has stood by the partnership, prompting a wave of public support in the company’s favour.

Since July 2010 , the American Family Associationhas been calling for a boycott on The Home Depot for its involvement in gay pride parades and festivals. The association says it has nearly 600,000 followers participating in that boycott.

At USA Christian Ministries, Mr. Andrew expanded his own boycott of Starbucks last week to include Nike, Amazon and other companies that he believes are “opposing God.” The Christian organization Florida Family Association has also made headlines for urging companies to quit advertising with the reality television show All-American Muslim, which it calls “propaganda.”

Home improvement retailer Lowe’s pulled its ads from the reality show late last year, sparking a backlash. An online movement called the National Lowe’s Boycott Network, created “to take a united stand against hate and bigotry,” has collected more than 43,000 signatures, urging Lowe’s to continue advertising on the show.

For its part, Lowe’s says its decision was not influenced by any one group. Rather, spokeswoman Julie Yenichek said in an e-mail that advertising on the program “became a source of controversy, igniting debate from a variety of perspectives. ... Lowe’s does not believe that advertising in programs surrounded by controversy is an effective way to reach consumers.”

At the American Family Association, spokesman Ed Vitagliano counts its two-year boycott of Ford among the AFA’s effective campaigns. The AFA ended that boycott in 2008, saying the auto company agreed to most of its demands to stop donating to groups supporting same-sex marriage and to pull what it deemed were “crude” ads in certain European publications.

In that case, it wasn’t Ford executives who felt the squeeze, Mr. Vitagliano says.

“Probably the Achilles heel of the company were the local dealership owners, these franchisees who owned a Ford dealership,” he says. “They go to church, they go to PTA meetings, they go to ballgames with people that they want to buy their cars. And they’re getting buttonholed at the local schools, [with people]saying ‘What’s going on? How come your company is doing this? Have you seen these magazine ads in Norway or England? These are disgusting.’”

Considering the potential for backlash, companies that Mr. Vitagliano encounters are often unwilling to go public with their concessions to AFA’s boycotts.

“We’ve heard from companies before and they’ve said, ‘Look, we’re getting hammered from the other side’.... So we don’t publicize this where companies have changed their policies but asked us not to crow about it,” he says.

Dr. King says companies targeted by boycotts should consider their images and who their consumers are, when determining how and whether to respond.

“An organization has to look at itself and say, you know, what kind of company are we?” he says. “What kind of identity do we have? And therefore, what kind of a reputation do we have?”

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

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