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Boycott sentiment is still strong. How can brands win consumer trust in the Middle East?

Brands must be more transparent and proactive to win consumers back

Boycott sentiment is still strong. How can brands win consumer trust in the Middle East?
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

For long, consumers have wielded their power to send messages to brands. Now, more than ever, they want to buy brands whose values align with their own, and boycott others  to protest. This phenomenon has recently caused harm to brands all across the world after the Israel-Gaza war broke out. 

In the past few months, the situation in Gaza has heightened boycotting US brands in the MENA region, as consumers have wanted to show solidarity and press corporations to address human rights issues. 

One such brand caught in the crossfire is McDonald’s, which in February stated that the company had missed its quarterly targets for the first time in four years, with sales being most impacted in the Middle East. 

Starbucks faced a similar impact, stating that sales in the US and the Middle East were hurt and lost $11 billion. 

Consumers are moving towards home-grown and local brands as a substitute for the boycotted brands in the region. 

While many consumers understand that the impact on a business will only be felt if they are one of many taking that stance, brands must uphold the consumer’s behaviors and values. 

“When a consumer chooses to boycott a brand, they are using the power of their wallet to make a statement to a brand or organization,” says Kate Hardcastle, a retail and consumer expert. 

A recent YouGov survey on consumer behavior and motivations behind boycotting in the UAE and Saudi Arabia has found that among the various reasons to boycott a brand, a brand’s stand on political or social issues that are against their view is most likely to make someone stop using it (49%). 

Inappropriate, insensitive, or misleading advertising is another common reason consumers refrain from buying or using a brand (39%.)

Social media has also played an important role in creating greater awareness of their collective influence. “With a combined effort, consumers see boycotts as a powerful way to express their dissatisfaction and push for better corporate practices,” Hardcastle adds. 

In doing so, consumers aim to achieve several outcomes, including immediate acknowledgment of their concerns about the brand, changes in company policies, and broader industry improvements. 

Sarwa Abdulrahman, who has boycotted many brands, explains that her motivation for boycotting is rooted in her desire to align with her truest self and values. “This commitment involves refraining from supporting companies and brands that do not uphold those principles. I have realized that the most effective way to demonstrate my values is by putting my money towards companies or brands that share those values.” 

Dania Darra shares the same sentiment, stating that boycotting is a way to make a difference. “It’s all about thinking about what I can do to help because there are too many things. When boycotting or trying to be a considerate consumer, it goes back to ‘what can I do?’ because we can’t do everything.” 

“If everyone does it, it will possibly lead to better practices for a certain brand, services, or in the industry itself,” she adds. 


The YouGov report outlines that negative press or a major scandal can affect a brand’s relationship with consumers, leaving them confused or betrayed. 

The magnitude of boycotts is reaching a global scale in the region, far beyond the usual local boycotts.

Observers say companies will continue to face increased scrutiny. This heightened awareness will likely lead to more frequent and targeted boycotts, particularly against companies that fail to respect local values or contribute positively to the community.

“Part of feeling betrayed is feeling like you’re not taken seriously. A lot of brands will come out, and they’ll make Instagram posts, or they’ll write statements of how they care, but it’s not impactful,” says Darra

She adds that consumers feel undermined, as though the brands are trying to trick them, leading to consumers altogether blacklisting certain brands, even if they do make a change. 

Abdulrahman says brands should provide transparency, change, and own up to past mistakes. “Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence—they’ll see through any attempts to brush things under the rug. If you want to rebuild trust, listen to what your audience is saying and work towards real solutions.” 

She adds that the ultimate letdown is when a brand or company turns out to be the opposite of what they claim to stand for. “It’s disheartening and feels like someone’s pulling the rug out from under you, forcing you to compromise your beliefs.” 

Both consumers and businesses have felt the impact of consolidated boycotting, and with social media boosting such efforts, it is clear that brand owners should not ignore this.

“As consumers now realize change can be made in this way, the future of boycotting in the MENA region will likely become more strategic and impactful. This will include the public becoming more organized and informed about their rights and the power of collective action. Digital platforms will enable quick and effective organization and dissemination of information, enhancing the reach of boycott movements,” says Hardcastle.

However, fact-checking and validating news and information online is integral, as misinformation can cause the reverse outcome and more damage.


For most brands, long-term value is created by having consumer awareness, respect, and a heightened value in the marketplace compared to competitors. Investment into creating brand value is significant, and awareness and respect take time to build, but it can be only a matter of minutes to lose ground.

“Brands or corporations need to listen to what people are asking. Otherwise, it will lead to their downfall,” predicts Darra. “When it’s a more organized effort in the community, it has an impact. There has to be a response to it because it’s at a much larger scale.”

Brands in the Middle East have already been experiencing this, with declining sales, negative media coverage, and potentially long-term reputation damage. “These impacts underscore the power of consumer activism and highlight the importance for brands to understand and engage with consumer sentiments,” says Hardcastle.

To regain consumer trust, brands should focus on genuine and transparent actions, and brand owners should take strong and proactive steps. 

Localization is a keyword when it comes to this brand solution. Understanding the unique cultural and social dynamics of the Middle East’s markets is crucial. This can be done by building relationships with local communities and stakeholders, aligning brand values with local ethics, and respecting cultural and religious practices. This may involve modifying advertising campaigns, product lines, or supply chain operations.

At the same time, brands must address issues or controversies quickly and sincerely while showing positive changes. During the Gaza conflict, businesses that have seen significant impacts on sales and reputation, if perceived as insensitive and financially motivated, have started paying closer attention to consumer behavior and the political implications of their business decisions.

“Boycotting is a strong protest in today’s economy, where financial power often speaks loudest,” says Abdulrahman. “People hold so much power making these tiny daily choices. Boycotting will raise awareness and catalyze meaningful change across various fronts, whether environmental preservation, addressing humanitarian crises, promoting gender equality, or advocating for animal rights.” 

Hardcastle suggests brands have an empathetic approach to maintaining consumer trust. This involves publicly acknowledging the conflict’s impact on civilians, revising investment and sponsorship decisions to ensure that operations and investments do not indirectly support oppression or conflict, supporting humanitarian efforts, and communicating clearly about company policies regarding human rights and conflict zones.

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Suha Hasan is a correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More