Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue heaped praise on President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden last week, prompting a boycott of the traditional Latin foods company.
“We’re all truly blessed … to have a leader like President Trump who is a builder,” Unanue said. “And that’s what my grandfather did: He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper. And so we have an incredible builder, and we pray — we pray for our leadership, our President, and we pray for our country that we will continue to prosper and to grow.”
Read the full transcript or watch the money shot below. It was enough to set off a backlash against the New Jersey-based company that has sold Hispanic food staples from across the region since 1936.
Like fireworks, Goya Foods is now a red vs. blue issue in America. The Wikipedia pages for both Goya and the historic Unanue family are locked. Unanue went on Fox News (of all places) to say the boycott is “suppression of speech.”
It’s not. It is a good old-fashioned American boycott, a tradition which predates the republic, when colonists boycotted British goods to protest taxation without representation.
But I don’t want to focus on politics so much as the outrageous ineptitude of Unanue. I can’t stop thinking about this guy. How can somebody in charge of such a big company ($1.5 billion in annual revenue) be so out of touch with his core customers? Does this have any precedent in modern business history?
Most brands try to be apolitical or fly under the radar. There are examples of companies who don’t, but those generally have a keen sense of who their customers are. I think Nike does a good job at staking out ground in where they want to be and, more importantly, who they don’t want to wear their clothes. On the conservative side of the culture war, Hobby Lobby picks their shots well.
To understand how off the mark Unanue was, you have to know the Goya brand. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before I married a Peruvian. But it’s the Frito Lay in the Latin grocers. In thinking back to my single days, I can’t remember if it’s on the shelves in Colombia and Peru. I may only think it was because of how ubiquitous it has become in my mind.
It’s the Coca-Cola of Hispanic food, or P&G. The safe bet. Once tasked with buying rice, something a gringo que se respeta doesn’t grow up buying, I got the Goya brand’s five-kilo sack. You can’t go wrong. They offer niche foods from every country in the region. We keep the Goya chulpe corn for Peruvian canchita in the house.
As a gringo, however, I don’t know if you would ever buy Goya if you didn’t have a Latin wife. You might not ever see it. If you need canned beans, Walmart’s house brand sells for 50 cents and comes with a pop top. Why buy Goya, if you stumble upon it? I’m not sure I ever heard of it before moving to South America.
Long story short, Goya is an institution in the Latin community. Meanwhile, love him or hate him, Donald Trump based his entire campaign on building a wall to keep Hispanics from entering the United States.
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” In the run up to the 2018 midterms, he led right-wing propaganda in focusing on MS-13, and even declared a national emergency so he could send troops to the border to stop migrant caravans. If there is any overarching theme to the presidency that eclipses protectionism, it’s stopping immigration both legal and illegal. Primarily Hispanic immigration.
To be clear, the Latin community in the United States are not as monolithic politically as Black Americans. But at a 70-30 split, they are strongly Democratic. But those polls only count voters. Goya Foods customers are a different group because not all are citizens or even here legally. What percentage of Goya’s core customers are or have family members who:
- are immigrants, legal or illegal
- are DACA recipients or “Dreamers”
- were in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria
- are in Mexico, currently unable to claim political asylum in the United States
- were detainees at ICE facilities
- were separated from their families in ICE detention
Some of those numbers are unknowable. Given how large the company is, Goya probably has market data on some. But without a doubt, every number is higher among Goya customers than in the general population. You can argue for any and all of Trump’s policies toward each group, but the point is that these groups make up the customer base of Goya Foods.
I know a handful of “dreamers” here in STL, and a lot of undocumented immigrants. They are exactly the kinds of families that grew up with Goya Foods in their pantries, and none of them is agnostic toward Trump. He is universally loathed. The Goya brand will probably survive this, but it’s a remarkable marketing blunder.
If this boycott proves to have legs, the family and/or shareholders will lead an intervention before a sales decline gets out of hand. The stakeholders with real money at stake will force Unanue out, and for good reason in my opinion. Because in market capitalism, mistakes this big are punished.
But that may not happen. The boycott may lose steam, the Latin community may forget after the next outrage and Goya Foods will be able to move on, lesson learned or not. We’ll have to wait and see. The only people who have a good idea at this point are the Goya sales reps, distributors and retailers.
I think it will hurt enough for some kind of change in company messaging. There will be an about face or public apology, even if Unanue isn’t sacked.
And I hope there is. I am joining the boycott. I emailed our preferred grocer for Peruvian ingredients, Global Foods Market, to request an alternative brand for the chulpe corn. I pointed them to Inca’s Food, which they already carry (and we already buy) for aji panca and other Peruvian flavors.
Have you heard of the Goya Foods boycott?
We are happy Global customers who come in regularly for Peruvian ingredients. However one of our staples cannot be substituted with another brand because you only offer it from Goya Foods: cancha chulpe or chulpe corn. Here is a substitute from a brand you already carry (our favorite): https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01K1IWK1W/
We’d rather buy from you than Amazon, but we won’t buy Goya. Thanks!
Only time will tell. Let’s wait and see what happens.
Ha! The buycott has already failed. Fugg the gringo yuppies who thought they could cancel the brand, they probably don’t even eat beans. And the folks who do eat beans probably don’t care what Unanue said, they’re more interested in what’s for dinner.
Three weeks later, this controversy feels like ancient history in the high-octane news cycle of the Trump era. While an high-pressure boycott feels less likely, this episode is shaping up to look like self-inflicted brand damage. How much damage? Will anybody care? Hard to say, but these pictures are forever.
In 1984 Coca Cola started a new formulation called New Coke. Consumers reacted with a boycott that put Coca Cola in headlines daily for months. After a while Coke offered traditional flavor as well as New Coke. Amid all the free publicity sales soared. When asked if the formula change was a tactic to get into headlines and be a nightly report on Nightline the Coke chairman remarked “we are not that smart but we are not stupid so we accept success”. Goya has become a news story which resulted in store shelves being sold out. Since Goya is a private company no figures are available. However just like Coke Goya knows that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Few updates here in the wake of Unanue naming AOC “employee of the month” for boosting Goya sales.
Their sales are certainly up in the pandemic since people aren’t eating in restaurants, but whether they have spiked more than competitors’ sales is the question.
In searching for company updates, I found what may be the more important story in a significant family intrigue. Unanue is fighting off private equity suitors in order to keep his job. Catch up on what is most likely motivating what Unanue does more than political interests:
Boss of Goya Foods quietly quashes agreement to sell part of company
Goya CEO Robert Unanue saved by his sisters from getting canned
Goya family furious over CEO Robert Unanue’s latest Trump plans