At a conference last Thursday, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi sat down with the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin and spoke about topics ranging from soda taxes to what she learned from Steve Jobs before he died. But Nooyi also weighed in on the election, prompting a furious social media response from some Trump supporters that included calls to boycott the global company’s army of food and beverage brands — another example of the volatile response some corporate brands are experiencing in the wake of this year’s divisive election.
Nooyi was first asked by Sorkin how she felt after the election results came out. “Do you have a box of tissues here?” she said, laughing slightly before turning serious and congratulating Trump on his win. “The election is over. I think we should mourn, for those of us who supported the other side. But we have to come together and life has to go on.”
Nooyi told Sorkin that she had to answer questions from her daughters and employees following Election Night. “They were all in mourning,” she said. “Our employees are all crying. And the question that they’re asking, especially those who are not white: ‘Are we safe?’ Women are asking: ‘Are we safe?’ LGBT people are asking: ‘Are we safe?’ I never thought I’d have had to answer those questions.”
Yet she also spoke of unifying the country and acknowledging the democratic process. “I think that the first thing that we all have to do is to assure everybody in the United States that they are safe. Nothing has changed because of this election. What we heard was election talk. And we will all come together and unify the country. So the process of democracy happened. We just have to let life go on.”
Then, in a response to a question about consumers that referenced the coarseness of the election and domestic violence issues in the NFL, Nooyi said “forget the Pepsi brand – how dare we talk about women that way? … Why do we talk that way about a whole group of citizens?” She said there was no place for such language — “not in locker rooms, not in football players’ homes, not in any place” — and “if we don’t nip it in the bud, this is going to be a lethal force that’s going to take over society.” In some reports, Nooyi was misquoted as saying “how dare you talk about women that way.”
Trump supporters on social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pounced on parts of her remarks, calling for a boycott of PepsiCo’s products. Some comments referred to the ethnicity of Nooyi, who was born in India. Kellan Terry, a data analyst for the analytics firm Brandwatch, said in an email that mentions of the #BoycottPepsi hashtag had grown to more than 19,000 as of early afternoon Tuesday, after beginning on Saturday. Due to other Trump-related hashtags, Terry said, “there is no question that supporters of Donald Trump are now controlling” those conversations.
A PepsiCo spokesman said in an emailed statement that “Mrs. Nooyi misspoke. She was referring to the reaction of a group of employees she spoke to who were apprehensive about the outcome of the election. She never intended to imply that all employees feel the same way. We are incredibly proud of the diverse views and backgrounds across our workforce, and we are united in our desire for a brighter future.”
Nooyi is not the first CEO or corporate official who has shared details about the fear or anxieties being felt by some of their employees in the aftermath of the election. At a Wall Street Journal event Monday, Alexandra Lebenthal, the co-CEO of New York-based investment firm Lebenthal & Co., told Trump surrogate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani during a question-and-answer session that “so many” of her employees have “expressed to me over the last week how scared they are.” Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer at consulting and accounting firm EY, told Bloomberg that she had received hundreds of emails from employees “raising concerns, thoughts and observations” and “areas of angst,” but also noted she was “hopeful, because there’s so much dialogue.”
The response to Nooyi’s comments is also not the only one to show how volatile responses have been in the aftermath of such a divisive election. The CEO of online food delivery service Grubhub, Matt Maloney, also saw calls for boycotts on social media after the chief executive sent an email Wednesday saying, in part, that “while demeaning, insulting and ridiculing minorities, immigrants and the physically/mentally disabled worked for Mr. Trump, I want to be clear that this behavior – and these views, have no place at Grubhub.” After advocating for diversity and inclusion, he wrote that “if you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here.”
Maloney had to clarify the memo Thursday with a statement where he said the email was misconstrued and intended to “advocate for inclusion and tolerance”: “I want to clarify that I did not ask for anyone to resign if they voted for Trump. I would never make such a demand.”
Meanwhile, a New Balance official, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, told the Wall Street Journal “with President-Elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Although it was intended only as a statement on the company’s position on the trade deal, and “nothing beyond that issue,” a company spokeswoman said in an email, it became kindling for protests from Trump opponents, some of whom posted videos to social media of their sneakers being set on fire in response. A neo-Nazi blogger even called the shoes the “official shoes of white people.”
The company, which still makes its athletic shoes in the United States, said in an emailed statement that it “has a unique perspective on trade in that we want to make more shoes in the United States, not less. New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.” It also issued a statement saying the 110-year-old sneaker company “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Jena McGregor