Targeting Companies and Institutions

Targeting companies and institutions, such as universities or businesses, is useful when institutions have harmful practices that need to be changed. Activists can also target companies and institutions as secondary targets when they don’t have access to the government or the state.[1]


The most effective strategies to target companies include:

  • Use messaging focused on competitive advantage
  • Host boycotts
  • Use tactics that leverage your resources


Use messaging focused on competitive advantage


As previously discussed, when targeting companies and institutions, you should be using messaging focused on competitive advantage.[2] The most successful messaging makes corporations compete with each other to become the most progressive companies, sparking landslides of positive changes.


Activists working to secure domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples in the 1990s and early 2000s were successful in getting many Fortune 500 companies to provide the benefits.[3] Their messaging focused on the positive impact of providing domestic partner benefits to companies. Activists talked of “responsible corporate citizens” going above and beyond to offer competitive advantages, employers who do not offer benefits losing out to “employers of choice,” and domestic partner benefits as being good for business.[4] They also secured testimony from executives at leading companies to help foster the competitive spirit that drove Fortune 500 companies to race each other towards offering benefits.


Host boycotts


Boycotts are a favored activist tactic when targeting companies and institutions. The research has shown that boycotts can be effective tools for persuading companies and institutions to change, with one study finding that 28% of boycotts that received national media attention between 1990 and 2005 were successful in achieving their demands.[5]


Surprisingly, research has shown that boycotts have little no impact on sales or revenue for companies. Boycotts are effective because they threaten institutions’ reputations, forcing staff and leaders to react to avoid a public relations crisis.[6] Therefore, activists pursuing a boycott should focus less on restricting sales and more on public relations.


When conducting a boycott, your goal should be generating as much media attention as possible. Boycotts that secure national media attention are much more likely to succeed,[7] as are boycotts with public demonstrations and celebrity endorsements.[8] Hosting frequent events, forming coalitions with other organizations and groups, and developing strong messaging strategies can all help increase the publicity of your boycott.


It is also important to choose your targets carefully. Individuals are much less likely to support boycotts when boycotts threaten large numbers of jobs and attack local businesses.[9] Your movement will need to carefully analyze your local context to determine your chances of success.


Use tactics that leverage your resources


If you do not have enough resources or followers to host a large boycott that generates media attention, you may want to direct your energy toward another target or use different tactics. Other tactics that can successfully target companies and institutions include shareholder voting,[10] lobbying policymakers and mobilizing voters to change the laws that impact institutions,[11] regulatory bodies and certification associations,[12] voluntary environmental programs,[13] public rating systems,[14] and direct communication with companies to encourage them to make changes.[15]


NEXT SECTION: Targeting Individuals to Make Behavior Changes


[1] King and Pearce 2010; Walker, Martin, and McCarthy 2008; Weber, Rao, and Thomas 2008

[2] Creed, Scully, and Austin 2002

[3] Briscoe and Safford 2008

[4] Creed, Scully, and Austin 2002, p. 483

[5] King 2008

[6] King 2008; King 2011

[7] King 2008; King 2011

[8] King 2011

[9] Klein, Smith, and John 2004

[10] Yermack 2010

[11] Foulon, Lanoie, and Laplante 2002; O’Rourke 2005; Sine and Lee 2009

[12] Bartley 2003; O’Rourke 2005

[13] Borck and Coglianese 2009

[14] Foulon, Lanoie, and Laplante 2002; Chatterji and Toffel 2010

[15] Chrun, Dolšak, and Prakash 2016; O’Rourke 2005


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