Loblaws Boycott

Brands are built by marketers, consumers, communities, and leaders. But the same people can also dismantle a brand, and when consumers and communities begin to organize against one, I call that an interest group. 

Brands that court controversy or earn it for whatever reason can see large numbers of people mobilize online in ways that just weren’t possible 10 years ago, or at least weren’t the norm.

And that seems to be what’s happened recently to Loblaws, a major Canadian grocery chain.

Fullintel spoke with the organizer and one of the moderators of the Subreddit “loblawsisoutofcontrol”, Emily Johnson, a mental health and addictions worker based in Milton, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. We wanted to know where interest in the group is coming from and why the page has grown so quickly: With more than 47,000 subscribers and growing, Johnson has firmly grabbed a tiger by its tail.

“It started as a small page in November after seeing a picture of a holiday planter,” said Johnson, recalling an $85 Christmas planter made of sticks and ribbon. Incensed, an inspired Johnson launched the page as a meme Subreddit to share jokes and funny stories.

But when Loblaws announced it would reduce its traditional steep discounts on soon-to-be-expired items, things got serious. The account grew to more than 16,000 subscriptions almost overnight. 

The group has even identified a comprehensive list of subsidiaries and brands under Loblaws in an effort to organize the upcoming boycott starting on May 1, 2024.

“It is a community for people to come together and talk about the frustration of the cost of groceries, but also the cost of prices overall,” said Johnson. “Food is the easiest entry point for people to understand what’s going on because everyone eats, but it is gas prices, telecommunications… people are upset.”

Motivations and Inflection Points

From Johnson’s perspective, the Subreddit – and sentiments around anti-corporate greed in general – grew so quickly based on the actions of retailers. When people find prices that are outlandishly high and share them on the internet, people naturally become outraged. That, she says, is when they typically find the Subreddit. 

And voices in support of Canada’s largest grocers may not be doing these brands any favours.

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor on food distribution and related policy who regularly comments on grocers, farming, and inflation. He also produces columns for several Canadian media outlets. In most cases, his analyses are concise and data-driven, but on social media, his commentary can be prone to generating controversial and often negative discussions.

In a post on X, Charlebois called participants in the Reddit campaign “…young idealists who live in their parents’ basements.”

Obviously, this struck a note with the Subreddit’s organizers and participants.

“I’m a single mother of two working as a social worker,” said Johnson. “When he posted this we had thousands of new subscribers to the Subreddit. If anything, he’s helped expand our audience.”

Twitter Post

Lessons For Communicators: Engage Interest Groups

There are some concrete steps PR professionals and communicators caught in a situation similar to Loblaws’ can take. Here are some of the most important:

1. Don’t underestimate interest groups: When viral news cycles and passionate consumers combine, interest groups can generate a snowball effect. This is what’s happened with R/loblawsisoutofcontrol, which now includes almost 50,000 people – all of whom spend at least some of their free time thinking about how to negatively impact Loblaws’ bottom line.

2. Avoid personal attacks, and distance your brand from them: Going personal on social media might feel good, but the harm comes quickly. Personal attacks or even light-hearted jokes can be taken out of context and become a news story unto themselves. It is a major distraction and a sign that a brand isn’t listening. When facing an organized interest group of consumers (your customers), distance your brand from unfair or uncalled-for commentary. 

3. Opportunity maker: If pricing fairness is in question among the competition, highlighting price certainty or savings is a huge opportunity. That being said, if your house is made of glass don’t go throwing stones. Subreddits and other communities like Johnson’s are good places to learn what consumers dislike the most about you, your competitors, or even your entire industry. This should be a learning moment for all three. 

While Loblaws has yet to formally address the organized efforts and upcoming boycott, it’s worth acknowledging their recent public statement addressing consumer concerns, particularly around affordability. 

While these actions demonstrate an acknowledgment of consumer demands, the sentiment fueling the R/loblawsisoutofcontrol movement reflects broader concerns regarding corporate practices and pricing fairness. As communicators, recognizing both perspectives is crucial: the genuine frustration of consumers seeking fair pricing, and Loblaws’ efforts to address these concerns. 

Finding common ground is essential, as it fosters constructive dialogue and potential solutions.

The grocery business is massive, and people will always need to eat. But as brand managers we should look at R/loblawsisoutofcontrol as a warning sign: Inflame your consumers and fail to listen to them at your peril.