You may have been following the ongoing controversy surrounding Target’s recent decision to donate $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, a political fund supporting the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, Tom Emmer. Let’s begin by catching up on some of the relevant details.
- Emmer’s platform is not only decidedly conservative, it stands in direct opposition to some of Target’s stated corporate positions. Emmer is “a fiery conservative who opposes gay marriage, lauds Arizona’s strict approach to illegal immigration, once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders and wants to lower taxes. His profile contrasts with Target’s moderate image in Minnesota, where the company is known for donating to public school programs, food shelves and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.” A bit of quick research revealed that Emmer has ties to anti-gay elements that appear to equate homosexuality with pedophilia.
- Predictably, the donation touched off a firestorm of protest that included online advocacy campaigns, Facebook ads, national boycott movements, a flash mob and even guerilla/street actions like a Tweet-In at the Target Fashion Spectacular.
- PR Daily’s newletter gave a HuffPo story on the rhubarb its top slot on August 4, going so far as to characterize the move as “a big ol’ PR mess.” When PR trade pubs step that far away from “objective” language, you know you have a grease fire on your hands.
- Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel eventually apologized. The Minnesota Progressive Project welcomed the apology and used the opportunity to call for a more comprehensive dialogue, but to date it isn’t clear that the matter is anywhere near closed. Private discussions between progressive bloggers and activists have noted that there was no word on whether Target will take back the contribution or make an equal donation to Emmer’s opponents. Target, they argue, is among a group of companies that pledged $1 million to MN Forward by Election Day.
- As the Los Angeles Times has reported, now Target is facing some backlash from large investors, including Walden Asset Management, Calvert Asset Management and Trillium Asset Management. The three firms “hold $57.5 million of Target stock,” and it had to smart to hear the comptroller of the New York state pension fund (another major investor) offering up this clearly worded rebuke: “It’s troubling to think that they can fund controversial candidates without properly assessing the risks and rewards involved.”
- The backlash even seems to have generated a guilt-by-association phenomenon for some connected to Target. Additionally, MSNBC’s decision not to air a MoveOn.org ad calling for a Target boycott has now made the network the focus of some unsought-after attention.
- Oh yeah, Best Buy stepped in it, too.
Target’s defense – that it was seeking to promote pro-business candidates – is unsatisfying, at best. If you’ve paid the slightest bit of attention to the American political scene in recent years you know it’s a minefield. The public has perhaps never been more polarized and we have certainly not seen partisan emotions running this high in our lifetimes. You had to know that news of this donation would become public. And you couldn’t possibly believe that it would be evaluated only in the economic terms you intended.
It’s hard to let Target off the hook, no matter how hard you try. There’s simply no excuse for not knowing about Emmer’s stances on social issues. If they did know and forged ahead anyway…well, I don’t want to devolve into pointless name-calling, but it’s fair to say that either way we’re looking at epic levels of malfeasance and/or rank incompetence. As for the company’s PR folks, if they knew about the donation beforehand they should have been screaming bloody murder (and I’m sure they’d have all our sympathies – most of us have probably dealt with clients and executives who simply didn’t get it). If they didn’t know ahead of time, then we now know something critically important about Target’s failure to understand the proper strategic role of PR, don’t we?
This whole debacle bothers me for several reasons. I am, and have been, a loyal and frequent Target shopper for a long time, and I hate to see companies I deal with shoot themselves in the foot. Second, I’ve written about Target before, arguing that they represent one of the most profound brand successes of our generation, so perhaps I feel a slight professional investment in the company even though I’ve never worked with them. Finally, it just baffles the practitioner in me that in this day and age, when even companies with a fraction of Target’s resources know more than ever about marketing and messaging and branding, a company can fail so badly at perceiving the basic facts of the social media era.
Corporate “Bisexuality”: Getting a Date for the Big Sale
Up to this point I’ve been treating Target’s action as a self-evident gaffe. But maybe not everyone thinks it was as obviously a mistake as I do. So maybe there would be some value in explaining my thinking.
Remember Woody Allen’s famous crack that “the good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on a Saturday night”? Funny stuff, and perhaps instructive. Allen’s quip isn’t perfectly parallel to the Target situation, but I keep thinking about the business value of aiming for as broad a market as possible. If you’re a niche business, like a local jewelry store or a beer brand, you’re not aiming for the mass market. You’re carving out your customer profile and working to win that comparatively small battle.
But a big box store really does need to aim for the biggest audience possible. Sure, Target and Wal*Mart are focusing differently – value/affordable design vs. pure price point – but neither is in a position to blow off half the marketplace. In a sense, mass marketers like Target need to be “bisexual,” if you will.
When a business takes a partisan stand in this supercharged political environment, it’s potentially dismissing half its customer base (and is certainly blowing off a good portion of it). In Woody-esque terms, we might say that they’ve just slashed their chances of getting a date to the big Black Friday Sale in half. Political conservatives perfected the art of voting with their pocketbooks over the past 30 years and progressive efforts like (the now-defunct) BuyBlue.org struck back with sophisticated, advanced technology. “Both” sides today are very effective at getting the message out through community and social networks and advocacy organizations about businesses that behave in the “right” and “wrong” ways and when a company displeases one constituency or another it pays a price in hard revenue.
If you’re going to “take a side” – and this can happen in a number of ways – you need to do so within the framework of a well-considered strategy. Marketing 101. Launching a craft beer brand with an ad campaign that disparages lower-quality industrial macrobrews is a great strategy so long as you have a good sense of how much of the remaining market you can capture. If you’re a Target and you’ve done your homework and are comfortable with a strategy that seeks to own the “conservative” half of the market, go for it.
So far, though, I haven’t come across anybody arguing that Target thought the Emmer contribution through. I have, however, come across a lot of people in blogs and social networks who have vowed that they will never shop at Target again. Even if you conclude that I’m only seeing a small sample of the population, and even if many of these people eventually find their way back to a Target store, we’re still talking about millions and millions of dollars in lost sales. That $150,000 they donated to Minnesota Forward is a drop in the bucket compared to the ill will the company generated and the revenue that it will never recover.
Building a Strategic Giving Platform: A Really Ironic Case Study
As a communications professional, then, what lessons should we learn from the Target crisis and what advice should we provide to our own leaders and clients as they contemplate how to invest company funds in social and political entities? Even companies that don’t feel ethical responsibilities to the communities they serve are increasingly feeling pressure to serve the “triple bottom line,” so this is going to be a growing concern for all of us in the marketing, branding, PR and corp comm fields.
Ironically, before the current controversy erupted, you could have argued that Target was something of a model for productive corporate giving. Their company Web site explains that they give five percent of their income to the communities they serve, a figure that adds up to “more than $3 million every week to support education, the arts, social services and volunteerism.” Have a look at their community giving guidelines:
Target makes grants to:
- Organizations located in communities where we do business
- 501©(3) organizations, schools, libraries or public agencies
- Nonprofit programs that impact any of the following areas:
- Early Childhood Reading
- Family Violence Prevention
- Support projects or programs
Target does not make grants to:
- Programs located outside Target communities
- Educational institutions for regular instructional programs
- Religious organizations for religious purposes
- Treatment programs such as substance or alcohol abuse
- Athletic teams or events
- Fundraiser or gala events
- Advocacy or research groups
- Capital or building construction projects
- Endowment campaigns
This constitutes a charitable platform that’s productive in ways that few but the most extreme constituencies in American society could argue with. Even better, a deeper look at these guidelines suggests that Target is doing more than just giving – they’re investing in programs whose benefits will be felt long after the money has been spent. If we insist on evaluating the ROI of our giving – and these days everybody does – we’d have no trouble establishing that this program fosters boundless goodwill in ways that inextricably tie the Target brand to the growth and lasting health of the community.
In other words, Target had the game figured out and then went off the rails.
Seven Principles for a Powerful Corporate Giving Program
If nothing else, Target’s travails demonstrate that even businesses with lots of resources can get it wrong. More to the point, they have established themselves as a case study in how quickly decades of goodwill can be squandered that we’ll be talking about for years.
In truth, though, there’s no great mystery to getting it right. Forward-thinking companies should be investing in their communities and taking an active role in making our society a better place for everyone they touch. The only question is how to do that in a way that promotes shared values instead of igniting firestorms of contention.
Here are seven principles and some associated questions that every business thinking about political or social giving should consider.
- Strategy: Do you have a plan for corporate giving? What principles guide the plan and do they reflect the values of your employees, investors and customers?
- Walk your talk: Is your giving internally consistent and consistent with your company’s official utterances?
- Avoid controversy unless there is business value in picking a fight. It’s okay to take a stand, even a controversial stand, so long as you mean to do it and are prepared for the consequences.
- Consult with your constituencies regularly: Public opinion in the age of social media and the 24-second news cycle is subject to rapid and dramatic change. How are you going to balance the need for fundamental, enduring principles and the need to adapt to evolving dynamics in the marketplace of ideas?
- Information wants to be free: Assume word will get out. If you try to keep your activities a secret, you deserve what happens to you (although your employees, stockholders, communities and customers probably don’t).
- The enemies of your beneficiaries will become your enemies: Can they hurt you? Are you sure?
- Gameplan for the worst case scenario with a talented, independent crisis advisor (preferably one with a vivid imagination and a dark view of human nature): Are you prepared to accept the consequences?
It’s a shame what has happened to Target. It may be years before we fully understand the extent of the damage they unwittingly inflicted on themselves. There’s no reason it should have happened. The good news is that we can all benefit from an occasional cautionary tale, and their misfortune suggests some productive ways that we can help our employers and clients get it right the first time, to the lasting benefit of the communities in which we live.