This post is part of our “Story Behind the Story” series, where we dissect online narratives and their impact on some of the biggest consumer brands.
A Grocery Store’s Decision to Close Locations Comes Under Fire
Major food and drug stores saw record profits in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. While some have provided hazard pay – or “hero-pay” – to employees in the past, many no longer do. With the pandemic still active, west coast cities, including Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Seattle, have recently enacted new Covid-19 hazard pay ordinances to help essential grocery workers, raising wages by $4-5 per hour for the next 120 days.
Following these new hero-pay mandates, Kroger announced the closure of seven “underperforming” stores, citing that it would be “financially unsustainable to continue operating” them. Despite Kroger’s explanations, democratic lawmakers in Los Angeles have said they are launching an investigation. This decision has also sparked protests from grocery workers and union members and has drawn significant criticism from a variety of online groups and government officials.
An Opportunity For Groups Online to Target the Brand
Kroger is the largest health food store chain in the United States and had earned record-breaking profits of $2.5 billion in 2020. Following it’s statement, factions online noted that the company’s CEO earned $21 million last year; a 76 percent increase compared to his 2019 compensation. Kroger also spent $1 billion last year to buy back their own stock shares.
Online narratives have labeled Kroger’s store closure decision as greedy and hypocritical given the company’s recent investments in smart grocery carts, e-commerce fulfillment, food justice initiatives, and SXSW food access panels. Some have also pointed out that Kroger will have to spend big money regardless to break their store leases, maintain empty buildings, and even cover legal fees to litigate this situation.
Eat shit, Kroger pic.twitter.com/ThLBzoQZfO— Captain Black America (@BlerdHumor) April 19, 2021
How Online Groups are Influencing Conversations
Factions have vyed for control over this narrative. Initially, factions including Pro Life and Anti vaxxers were leveraging the news about store closures to call out “cancel culture.” The factions claimed that businesses should be allowed to make business-based decisions. However, over the course of the last week, factions including BLM Activists have taken over control of the narrative and refocused it on what the brand’s actions say about how much they value profits over front line workers.
Twitter suspends President Trump’s Twitter account.— Kimberly Klacik (@kimKBaltimore) April 19, 2021
Liberals-“Twitter is a private company & has that right”
Kroger closes stores in California showing all what an increase in minimum wage will do.
Liberals-“The CEO doesn’t need to make millions, he should share the wealth” pic.twitter.com/7D2XClHgxU
Coordinated factions spreading stories about Kroger closing stores now includes essential grocery workers, worker’s rights groups, union members, democratic lawmakers, city councilmembers, and more. Their focus is on calling out Kroger for closing stores instead of giving workers an extra $4 in pandemic hero-pay.
1. Today, @Kroger is closing two stores in Seattle to retaliate against a local $4/hr hero pay law. More than 100 workers will be fired or dislocated.— More Perfect Union (@MorePerfectUS) April 24, 2021
Kroger made $2.8B in profit in 2020. CEO Rodney McMullen got a pay raise to $21M.
Some heart-breaking details are emerging. pic.twitter.com/vP8EOw5PY8
Reporters and mainstream media have published headlines that make Kroger appear to be unsupportive of frontline workers. Kroger’s commitments to low prices and cultural diversity are now being mocked online and their new ads have even become popular memes.
Although these narratives have included brand-damaging language, the conversations surrounding this issue have remained authentic, meaning posts and discussions have not shown signs of manipulation and are the result of engagement from real social media users.
Recommendations for Strategic Communication Teams
This situation shows us how factions use brands as vehicles to score points for their own political agendas. Two weeks ago, some factions saw the Kroger hero pay issue as an opportunity to discuss “cancel culture” and then, one week later, other groups used their influence to shift the direction of the narrative.
Brands that get pulled into online conversations — whether through their direct actions, or unintentionally — need to know that they are going to have to withstand attacks from all sides. In a perfect world, Kroger would have leveraged social intelligence to determine how their decision to close its stores was going to play out on social media, with groups of allies and adversaries alike. This kind of intelligence has often encouraged brands to revisit decisions that are more costly for the brand in the long-term — in terms of reputation damage, loss of consumer trust, or a drop in stock price and perceived value.
Faction Insights and Narrative Analysis
Monitoring incidents and brand-damaging narratives like these requires proactive social intelligence to identify conversations happening across mainstream and fringe networks. Yonder delivers unique faction insights and emerging narrative analytics to help your team triage, plan, and potentially act before your brand reputation is affected. Yonder’s technology can let you know what groups are driving narratives, why, where, and how; giving your team more visibility and time to determine the likely impact on your brand and the best course of action.