What small businesses can learn from the (latest) campaign to boycott Woolworths


Woolworths loves upsetting its customers.

The supermarket giant, and more broadly Woolworths Group, is the target of a #boycottwoolworths social media campaign this week, after announcing its sponsorship of the “Thanks a Million” campaign.

The program is designed to “thank everyone who has gone the extra mile” during the hellish year of bushfires and pandemic.

So far, so good. 

The backlash started because Woolworths’ partner in the endeavour is News Corporation, which will publish the names and stories of people nominated.

News Corp is at the centre of a petition started by Kevin Rudd calling for a royal commission into its domination, and some say the destruction, of Australia’s media landscape. The petition currently has over half-a-million signatures.

Put the sponsorship and the petition together, and you’ve got a social media tornado, with some people furious at the very idea Woolworths would hitch themselves to anything associated with News Corp. 

I hope Woolworths’ reaction to the backlash wasn’t a surprise.

With News Corps much-maligned coverage of the pandemic often actively undermining public health advice and actions, a quick read of the room should have given Woolies a clue about how the partnership might go down with their customers.

But this isn’t Woolworths’ first turn in the social media spin cycle.

Last year the company also earned the ire of their customers when it was revealed its parent Woolworths Group had a large stake in ALH, which owns various gaming outlets.

Customer pressure worked, with Woolworths Group announcing ALH would merge with Endeavour Drinks, which includes Dan Murphys, and be sold off sometime in 2020. 

Will customers get results this time?

It’s early days, but a quick spin through the busy #boycottwoolworths feed shows people switching orders to Coles and Aldi, and swearing off sister organisations such as BWS and others. 

Others are hijacking the campaign and nominating Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton, two targets of negative News Corp stories in recent months.

There’s a lesson for small businesses that want to avoid the pointy end of a social media backlash — one Woolworths appears slow to learn.

Discontent doesn’t land out of the blue. What’s often behind it is a promise you made that someone feels you’ve broken.

The community section of Woolworths’ website says the company is “committed to making a positive impact and partner[s] with organisations who make positive change happen”, which sounds suspiciously like a promise.

Promises feed reputation and goodwill, which carry across internal and external environments, and often have little to do with the work to generate them.

Good or bad, reputation is a capital that grows through use. 

Woolworths trades its reputation for sales every day, counting on it and that goodwill to keep people driving past Coles and Aldi.

So, that’s a boatload of value to trade for a partner that people see as making a negative impact.

Businesses need to look carefully at partners before they make the deal. Ask: ‘Is there anything they do that rubs the wrong way when compared to what we care about? Is the trade of being connected to them worth what we get out of it?’

Brand is always a result. And years of goodwill and accomplishment can erode in an instant.

It’s well past time to start considering the different things we trade with every action and decision. 

Don’t be Woolworths. Consider the trade you are making and stay out the crosshairs of social media outrage.


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