The groundswell of anger over the conflict in Gaza has triggered several boycott campaigns, particularly towards those brands perceived to be supporting Israel. While such measures are unlikely to significantly affect the targeted brands long-term, they do present opportunities for local brands to leverage the momentary shift in sentiment and potentially improve brand awareness and loyalty.

When McDonald’s Israel announced on its social media accounts that it had given thousands of free meals to Israel Defense Forces personnel, the move was disavowed by the US burger giant’s franchises in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey. This was swiftly followed by calls on social media to boycott McDonald’s for its apparent support of Israel and its retaliatory efforts in Palestine, which have thus far led to more than 14,000 Palestinian casualties.  

Starbucks has criticised its union for posting “Solidarity with Palestine” on X, formerly known as Twitter, and released a statement distancing itself from the words and actions of the union. This, in turn, was condemned by Palestine’s supporters around the world, many of whom have called for a boycott of Starbucks as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement.

The consumer response to the Gaza conflict was foreseeable, given the scale of the war and the ensuing humanitarian crisis and the rise in both antisemitic and anti-Arab hate and violence globally. Consumers have shown they are more than willing to let their values drive their purchase choices. Not only do the majority (55%) of global consumers want brands to actively address global social issues (which rises to 66% among consumers in the Middle East and Africa), but most consumers (57%) will stop buying products from a brand if their values do not align with their personal beliefs (67% in the Middle East & Africa).

While corporate giants are certainly bearing the brunt of negative media attention as the Gaza war continues, this is unlikely to exert lasting influence on the companies or the economies in which they operate. Unless, that is, the international community can implement a system of co-ordinated sanctions, as was the case with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Otherwise, boycotts can be effective in raising awareness of a particular cause but may not have the intended economic impact.

What is possible, however, is for local and regional brands to take advantage of negative sentiment towards foreign producers by seizing the spotlight. Spiro Spathis, Egypt’s oldest carbonated drinks company, is enjoying a remarkable comeback for this very reason. As a result of nationwide boycotts of Western companies perceived to be supportive of Israel, the century-old brand is being unofficially positioned as the poster child for Egyptian solidarity with Palestinians. According to Morcus Talaat, the company’s head of marketing and one of three siblings who own the firm, demand for the drink has tripled over the past month. Indeed, rising international tensions only serve to strengthen advocacy for local brands, which is already strong: 62% of global consumers (68% in the Middle East and Africa) agree that support for the local community is more important than buying from larger multinational brands.

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In what is arguably a more ruthless era of “cancel culture”, brands must walk a fine line between taking a stance on issues of importance and relevance to their brand values (and being accountable for doing so), whilst attempting to remain open-minded and inoffensive (which may simply be perceived as insensitive or unsympathetic). As bigger players navigate this space, there is an opportunity for disruption from smaller and more fearless local brands who are not afraid to let their voices be heard.