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Protesters target tech firms

U.S. companies with high-profile consumer brands have always been focal points for anti-American feelings, but tech firms have often been overlooked. That's about to change.

America at war War protesters targeting American companies are moving beyond familiar consumer brands like McDonald's and Coca-Cola and are adding names like IBM, Dell Computer and Motorola to the list.

Companies with high-profile consumer brands have always been focal points for anti-American feelings, but tech firms have not always been included in the mix. Now, though, that's changing. One site advocating a boycott of U.S. companies includes Dell, America Online, Motorola and IBM on its list of targeted businesses, alongside such household names as Revlon and the Gap.

And in some cases, the protests have gone beyond boycotts. Last month, Italian police defused a bomb outside IBM's Bologna offices. Police said the incident was "probably" related to a

"It's something that we've been watching fairly closely. This goes back several years; it's not simply related to the events at present in Iraq," said Norman Sandler, director of global strategic issues at Motorola. "As a company that operates in any number of countries around the world, we have to be conscious of our position. We do try to operate where possible, if not as a national company, than as a regional company. But the fact that we are U.S.-based is always going to be an issue."

Some companies may have made it onto target lists because of their work in defense research, others because they have operations in Israel. But other companies are being targeted simply as symbols of corporate America. "The only way to communicate with the American government is through big business," says the above-mentioned site, put together by an organization calling itself the "International Group for Direct Economic Action against the war," or IDEA.

Even though many of the companies are not consumer focused, multimillion-dollar branding efforts have made their names known to millions of consumers who have never seen their products.

"We think that what's going on right now is arguably the biggest challenge facing American brands outside the U.S. in the last 30 years," said Christopher Lochhead, CEO of marketing consulting firm Lochhead Corporation. "The reason that U.S.-based tech companies are vulnerable is that it's been widely reported in the media that this is a technology war. The U.S. enjoys a significant technology advantage that is in many ways (an) information-technology advantage. That compounds the issue for U.S.-based tech companies."

Branding and marketing experts say the protests are not likely to have significant impact on companies' finances but caution that businesses should still be careful how they deal with the protests.

Lochhead suggests that companies try to operate as a "glocal" company: a global business that's well integrated into the local culture. And he stressed that they "develop a point of view on the local, social and economic value," the company can provide.

"If you're, say, IBM in Italy, you need to have a point of view of the social and economic values that IBM creates in Italy--be it jobs or what you're doing for the economy," Lochhead said.

But security is also something companies are keeping an eye on. The IBM incident has heightened concerns that were sparked following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"For many years, we've had very strong security processes, and after 9/11 they got even stronger," Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said. "We're very diligent in monitoring situations like that. We're aware of the IBM situation, and we're very careful in monitoring things like this. We really don't talk about the specifics other than to say we have them."