A protest movement targeted against major international and global corporations, particularly those believed to be using cheap labour to create their primary branded product, those whose operations cause harm to the natural environment or its creatures, and those involved in harmful trades, such as arms, tobacco, or certain types of drugs and chemicals. As the focuses of the protests are those companies who have global brands, this is an important social and political movement and trend for marketers to understand, especially when designing campaigns. It shows that consideration of brand reputation must now go beyond the simply commercial dimension of a company.
The global brand image can be a surprisingly complex business to handle, and can be affected adversely in many ways. Nike, for example, became the focus of worldwide protests when it became apparent that Nike trainers are produced by workers in conditions that are characterized in the media as ‘sweatshop labour’. Nike responded to this attack by saying they were providing jobs where no one else was, but also seemed to be saying that in any case most trainer manufacturers produced their shoes in the same way, so why did Nike get the bad publicity. The fact remains that many consumers are now aware of the low pay earned by the workers who manufacture their shoes, and there seems little doubt that Nike has been damaged by the many campaigns on low manufacturing pay in the industry. There is also no question that the growing ‘anti-globalization’ movement has hurt many firms with an international image that once seemed impregnable, a notable example being the McDonald's chain, which has been particularly attacked for its strong propagation of a fast food culture. Being American, with American values, also comes under attack. This is a factor that has also damaged Coca-Cola in the Middle East, where rival local brands explicitly position themselves as opposed to the all-American appeal of Coke. A classic example of an anticorporate case is the so-called ‘McDonald's libel trial’. The case was brought by McDonald's against Greenpeace activists Helen Steel and David Morris after London Greenpeace issued a pamphlet ‘What's Wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know’. The pamphlet accused McDonald's of a wide range of abuses, from animal welfare failings to the exploitation of children. After a trial lasting 313 days (making it the longest-ever English libel trial) the judge found that McDonald's had indeed been libelled, but also found the company responsible in variable degrees for a wide range of abuses, including animal cruelty, misleading customers about nutrition, paying low wages, and child exploitation. Unsurprisingly, the trial is now widely perceived as a huge PR disaster for McDonald's. The image implications for companies with cases such as the McDonald's libel trial are of course enormous and it can be incredibly difficult to undo the harm done. Similarly, even the most powerful oil company (such as BP and Exxon) will find that its image suffers disastrously every time there is an oil spill. For all the power and spin capacity of large commercial enterprises, a photograph of one oil-drenched seabird has the power to negate massive image-building campaigns.