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Goya Controversy Highlights Brand Expectations From Today's Consumer

by Rudy Sanchez on 07/13/2020 | 4 Minute Read

Last Thursday, CEO, and grandson of founders of Goya Foods, Robert Unanue, attended a lunch with President Trump at the White House, afterward praising the president, saying that the country was “truly blessed” with Trump at the helm. Critical response to Unanue’s praise of the president was swift, with a growing call to boycott the company. 

While calls for boycotts over support or disagreement with the president is nothing new in the era of Trump, the latest brouhaha is unique in that it is perhaps the first instance of a heritage brand with strong roots to a community finding itself at the center of a Trump-based row. Goya’s row is also the latest in a string of controversies that have tested the conventional wisdom for how brands respond to politically divisive issues.

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Goya was founded in Manhattan in 1936 by Spanish immigrant Prudencio Unanue Ortiz and his wife Carolina after they migrated from Spain to Puerto Rico, and they quickly focused on providing products for homesick Latino and Hispanic immigrants in the US. Goya Foods is now based in New Jersey but continues to specialize in Iberian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Mexican food products, with annual revenues of $1.5 billion. The brand's commercial success coincides with waves of immigrants from Latin America, and in their near-century of operations, the company has deeply embedded itself in Latino culture in the US and many other countries.

Unsurprisingly, the negative reaction to Unanue’s praise of Trump by the Latino community is compounded by Trump’s multiple instances where he’s made disparaging remarks about them, his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the administration’s opposition to DACA, which allows children brought to the US illegally to continue their college education and work in the US, the separation and holding of migrant children in squalid detention centers, and hostility towards Central American refugee seekers. 

Unlike a brand such as Home Depot or Equinox, Goya has deep roots in an entire community. Can Goya really be canceled, or is it too big and embedded in the lives of consumers to go away?

For Goya’s part, Unanue has decided to dig in and defend his statement, saying the boycott was a stifling of his freedom of speech and expression. The brand itself took to social media posting about the philanthropic work they do, completely sidestepping the controversy. Of course, that didn’t stop New York Congresswoman Axendria Ocasio Cortez and former HUD Secretary and Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda from weighing in against the food company.

Politically motivated boycotts are nothing new, but the political morass has called into question the conventional wisdom when it comes to weighing on a particular issue. The frenetic pace exacerbated by the always-connected nature of the digital realm throws out tried-and-true tactics and strategies. Trump’s ability to make controversial comments surrounding race and other social issues with little to no repercussions seems to provide some cover for those with similar hot takes on social issues, regardless of the potential fallout. 

Goya’s woes come at a time when consumers are far less inclined to allow brands to stay quiet or neutral on the things that matter most to them. From the environment to social justice, brands are now expected to take a stand, and citizens are making purchasing decisions based on how well a company aligns with their convictions. 

Brands such as Nike have seen a lift in revenue by stating a clear position concerning Black Lives Matter, standing directly in opposition to Trump and the NFL. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody and subsequent mass demonstrations, brands across different industries expressed solidarity with the Floyd protestors, with some committing donations to associated causes.

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This confidence can get distorted by another quality of the current age—the rise of echo chambers. While social media has lowered the barrier to entry when it comes to discourse, it also has done a great job feeding users what they want to hear, as well as reinforcing their positions and leaving out differing opinions.

On the other hand, social media has also served as a highly effective accelerant to grassroots movements, even if used by outside agents for ulterior motives. From Operation Chanalogy (a global awareness movement against alleged abuses by Scientology organized and spearheaded by imageboard site 4Chan) to the latest Goya boycott, unhappy citizens have quickly organized and acted swiftly towards brands they disagree with, and, in Goya’s case, in near real-time over the internet.

The significant shift in consumer expectation, the polarization of political discourse, and the swift currents of the web amid a global pandemic have set brands’ playbooks alight, along with everything else in our dumpster-fire-esque state of affairs. Consumers expect brands to have a conscience, and when a company finds itself in a state of pandemonium, it’s sometimes unclear how to react, and thanks to social media, they don't have much time to formulate a plan.

Ultimately, there is one certainty that brands can count on—in 2020, nothing is certain.

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