Brands and consumer power: Who is really in control?

The war in Ukraine that we have witnessed since the end of February 2022 has caused a strong reaction from both governments and societies across the democratic world. The economic sanctions imposed on the Russian economy led to the withdrawal of most global brands from this market. However, several brands avoided this movement and at least partially maintained their businesses, which in turn sparked consumer outrage.

The most interesting thing in this context is not really which brands chose to continue their operations in Russia, but their lack of faith in the power of consumers.

“It will be fine anyway”

Mondelez-owned Marabou was far from the only global company that tried to tone down the discussion surrounding its operations in Russia, but created strong reactions in the Swedish market. Absolut Vodka as well. These two brands, which have a deep historical connection with Swedish consumers, chose a strategy where they hoped the storm would blow over. When a company is very sure that it is going well anyway, it is less inclined to change its behavior.

But it didn’t go very well either for the former popular Marabou, Absolut, or for that matter ICA, who in turn were slow to act in the intense price discussions linked to the inflationary situation and came across as greedy. They all missed an important insight: despite their deep emotional connection to Swedish consumers, they were actually quite interchangeable. This became evident when the emotional connection was broken due to a real clash of values.

The Swedes’ answer – you are actually easy to replace

We conducted an experiment where we asked the Swedish people to assess how easy or difficult it is to replace these three brands with others that meet the same expectations and requirements. The results show that more than 6 out of 10 Swedes believe that it is very or fairly easy to replace Absolut Vodka and Marabou with a corresponding product or company, while 7 out of 10 believe that it is easy as pie to stop shopping at Ica if necessary .

Young men experience some difficulty in finding a substitute for Absolut Vodka, while younger women have more difficulty identifying any alternative to Marabou. Despite this, it is a question where the opinions among the Swedes are largely unanimous – today there are plenty of brands that offer equivalent alternatives when one’s favorite brands do not live up to the most important expectations.

Anger is rocket fuel

Social scientists trace the origins of consumer activism to the 18th century and the “free-produce movement,” which advocated the boycott of goods made with slave labor. Although history is rich with examples of brand boycotts, contemporary experts argue that we are now experiencing a defining phase for consumer activism. Brands face increased exposure in an increasingly public environment and must adapt to consumer values more than ever before.

Consumer boycotts are often driven by anger and spread quickly on social media, according to a study by Beihang University. The outrage generates discussions about brands, products and messages, and virality is driven by the fact that most of the content on social media feeds and timelines is sorted by its ability to generate engagement. NYU research shows that powerful moral words in viral communication increase spread by 20% per word.

Although Marabou owner Mondelez eventually announced that the Russian operation would be wound up before the end of the year, newspapers continued to report on retailers one by one distancing themselves from the company. The Absolut brand, which for decades has been held up as an unprecedented marketing success story, is now tarnished by the owner’s lack of backbone on an obviously important value issue and is likely to taste watery for a good while to come. But ICA… well ICA will now have to learn to master humility in a way never seen before.

Ieva Englund

Client Development Advisor




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