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Why General Mills didn’t get hammered for speaking out on marriage amendment

General Mills headquarters
Courtesy of General Mills
The emphasis on inclusion translates into marketing opportunities, like General Mills’ multiple rankings on the “Best Places to Work” lists.

Homegrown and world-class, General Mills and Target are the kind of corporate citizens Minnesotans point to with pride. So why did their forays into politics and public policy elicit such opposite reactions?

Last week, General Mills, on a company blog, told its employees and the public that the company opposed the proposal to amend Minnesota’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

“If defeated,” wrote General Mills vice-president for diversity Ken Charles, “Minnesota voters would send a strong message about our state’s view of the importance of inclusiveness and diversity.”

Public reaction was overwhelmingly positive, according to Minnesotans United for All Families, the campaign to defeat the amendment. Opposition appears to be limited to a mild statement from Minnesota for Marriage, the campaign supporting the amendment.

But two years ago, when Target Corporation, which has a history of political activism, donated $150,000 to a group supporting gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, a furious reaction was whipped into frenzy. The company tried to explain that it supported only Emmer’s pro-business positions not the candidate’s opposition to gay marriage.

Explanations were in vain.  After several weeks of negative media reports, anti-Target petitions, and a consumer boycott, Target apologized.

Case of perception

A gulf the size of a Target super-store separates the two responses. The cause is not the issue itself. In the most recent opinion poll, Minnesotans lean toward opposing the marriage amendment, but not by a huge margin. As with any open corporate decision, it’s a case of perception.

“I think what set people back with Target is that it seemed out of character with their brand, said public relations consultant Jon Austin. “By contrast, what General Mills did is consistent with their brand values.”

General Mills is aggressive in its diversity strategies. “We’re proud of our workplace, and we’re proud to be a leader for diversity and inclusion in our community. For decades, General Mills has worked to create an inclusive culture that welcomes and values the contributions of all,” noted VP Charles in his blog.

The emphasis on inclusion translates into marketing opportunities, like General Mills’ multiple rankings on the “Best Places to Work” lists.

There are also practical advantages. “They’re a global company,” Austin reminds us. “A global company in Minnesota needs to make an extra effort to attract a workforce that reflects its global clientele.”

In its statement, General Mills acknowledged “this is a business issue.” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier says: “They did this for employment marketing. They figure it’s a wash or a net plus.”

Schier says he believes that despite the fact that General Mills sells its products to traditional families with traditional values, its position on gay marriage has no downside if confined to a statement on company policy.

Target was different because “it had some skin in the game,” Schier said, referring to the company’s donation to Minnesota Forward, a pro-Emmer organization. “The cash difference is huge. You become very conspicuous with money.”

Tactical opportunity

Motivated gay activists used the contribution as a tactical opportunity. “Kudos to the gay community for their deft use of the issue,” said Austin. “It illustrates the danger of tipping your toe into politics.”

It also demonstrates the risks of corporate contributions following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows entities like businesses and unions to use general funds, not just designated political action money, to contribute to independent expenditures groups. 

Minnesota Forward, like its DFL counterpart, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, encouraged these large-dollar donations in the governor’s race. But it was the Target contribution that became the Minnesota emblem of what critics saw as the evil of unbridled political spending.

General Mills has not made any monetary contribution to fight the amendment, says a spokesman for the Minnesotans United campaign.

Minnesotans United has actively courted Minnesota businesses. Former gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner has been retained to coordinate outreach to businesses and business leaders to persuade them to pledge verbal support to fight the marriage amendment.

St. Jude Medical was the first Minnesota Fortune 500 company to do so. Last October it released a statement that “we do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of economic and jobs growth in Minnesota. We believe that it is important for the state to be viewed as inclusive in order to recruit and retain the best talent.” A company spokeswoman says that St. Jude’s position has had no negative fallout.

Contrary view

At least one political observer has a contrary view of the General Mills action.  John Wodele, communications director for former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who personally opposes the amendment, offers this opinion: “I would have advised them not do it.”

Employees are a diverse group, he said, as are shareholders, and a company should be cautious with endorsement of social issues that are part of an individual’s core principles. “General Mills could show its diversity commitment with support of community events like the Gay Pride Parade and Rondo Days that are generally apolitical,” he said.

Ultimately, the debate over a corporation’s support of a controversial issue or candidate gets determined when the votes are counted. Target lost the debate, as did the candidate, with its support of Tom Emmer, despite the fact that its action helped fund a $1 million ad campaign.  

General Mills so far has simply reinforced its commitment to an already clear company policy. From a marketing and public relations perspective, the decision has only enhanced the company brand. But it may make little difference in the outcome in November on a subject that voters will decide through personal convictions and beliefs.

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Comments (19)

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General Mills didn't get "hammered" because it came down on the side of the issue where fair Minnesotans find themselves. The side of the issue that improves the business climate in our state and improves civil equality for all.

Thanks Betty! I raise a cinnamon roll in your honour!

Horner's Payback

Tom Emmer lost the very close 2010 election to Mark Dayton because liberal Republican Tom Horner entered the race as an independent, siphoning crucial votes from Emmer. Horner has now been retained (presumably) by the liberal, anti-traditional marriage Minnesotans United to push its cause, creating a pretty smooth payback to Horner, a former PR guy.

According to who?

Cite your source for Minnesotans United being "anti-traditional marriage".

You won't find it, because they're not.

Just because they favor something you may be against does not follow that they are against something that you are for.

They're pro marriage. VERY pro-marriage. In that they are pro-marriage for any and all loving committed couples who wish to become married. Whether heterosexual or gay.

They're pro-marriage, and statements to the contrary are not supported by the facts.

How is Minnesotans United

opposed to traditional marriage? They haven't proposed any ballot measures that ban straight unions.

Huh?

A liberal drew votes away from a conservative? How's that work? Did some conservatives say, "Instead of voting for a conservative, I think I'll vote for that liberal guy"?

"Tom Emmer lost the very

"Tom Emmer lost the very close 2010 election to Mark Dayton because liberal Republican Tom Horner entered the race as an independent, siphoning crucial votes from Emmer"

That is how Pawlenty won. Twice. I am guessing you had no issue with the third party candidates in those elections.

the expectations game:I (and

the expectations game:

I (and I suspect most people) would have been hard pressed to identify General Mills' "brand values" prior to last week.

Target, on the other hand makes a big deal of their progressive values, even if they often fail to live up to them.

General Mills is irrelavant

General Mills didn’t get hammered simply because General Mills’ opinion is irrelevant.

depends on how you define hammering....

I think part of the reason for the "hammering" is that the left side of the spectrum fights more with their voices. On the right side it is all hidden, even by their own admission. They have all those massive contributions by their billionaire buddies who are supposedly "afraid" to let their names be know for fear of retribution. So if they did any hammering it was in the form of new seven-figure checks donated to MWHD, Minnesotans Who Hate Diversity.

No business commenting

Since when does a non human have any right to take any position on things affecting humans? A corp, regardless of what a traitorous court states, is not a human, and so should have no rights other than the right to serve humans. That is "serve" not "scam."

The Goal of Today's Corporations Is "To Serve Mankind"

but only in the sense used in Damon Knight's short story and the Twilight Zone episode of the same name. In those stories, "to serve man" is the title of a book eventually revealed to be a cookbook that the alien visitors in the story will use to prepare and eat humans.

Most of today's modern corporations (especially those involved in finance) may not be eating us physically but considering that "profit" is their only motive, and that pursuing that profit involves, more often than not, the destruction of their workers, the society on which those workers depend and the natural world, they're consuming our lives and killing the rest of us just the same.

It's really very simple

The amendment is unpopular. Social conservatives are out of touch.

Because unlike the left, conservatives believe in free speech

"I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is not part of the liberal lexicon.

ACLU

Apparently you've never heard of the American Civil Liberties Union (an organization often decried by conservatives due to their habit of going to bat for the civil liberties of anyone in need - regardless of where on the political spectrum they may lie).

Once more…

…disconnected from reality…

“ ‘I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is not part of the liberal lexicon.”

And your support for this genuinely silly assertion is…?

The difference with Target

The difference with Target is a couple of things. First was timing--Emmer had just made the laughable claim that waitresses were making $100,000 a year, so he was in favor of abolishing the minimum wage. So Target also looked stupid for claiming Emmer's positions on business was the reason for their endorsement/contribution. Hey, if we abolished minimum wage, no one in their major demographic could have afforded to shop at Target anymore--so nothing about Target's action rung true. Emmer's homophobia was just more icing on a rotten cake.

And Target handled the fallout poorly--people got a blanket response about how Target wasn't anti-gay, regardless of why they had contacted Target.

General Mills feeds families--all kinds of families--straight families, gay families, families with one parent, families with both parents, families with no parents, families without kids. They come across as being pro-family--how can you argue with that?

The hammer missed…

…in part, at least, because talk is cheap, and it’s actions that count. General Mills expressing an opinion – to whatever degree a corporation can be said to actually have an opinion – is not the same thing as Target spending actual dollars in support of a particular viewpoint.

As Ms. Maker points out, General Mills feeds all kinds of families, and Target’s timing and action didn’t ring true. Eventually, Target (and General Mills, too) will get better at playing politics, now that the rules allow them to do so directly. Once they’ve mastered that, we can kiss democracy goodbye, since there are no democratic (with a small ‘d’) corporations among the Fortune 500, and Mr. Tester’s assertion regarding “conservatives” and free speech is, to be polite, somewhat at odds with corporate reality.

I concur with Ms. Maker's and Mr. Schoch's reasoning

But I would also like to add that a huge difference in my thinking about it is that General Mills spoke out about an issue not a party or a party indorsed candidate.

Target supported a political candidate endorsed by a party. In my mind that is a very different very partisan form of speech.

I find the amendment appalling because: I really am not interested in what goes on in someones bedroom, Marriage is a civil contract and a religious sacrament and I know the difference between the two therefor it is a contract - withhold the sacrament if you must but not the civil benefits, And I am not fond of churches not maintaining the separation between church and state, or restated I don't want the Archdioceses of St. Cloud -the largest contributor to the lobbying effort legislating for other religions.

Conservatives Love Free Speech for Everyone!

Is that why Rep. Bachmann wanted investigations of Democratic members of Congress for their supposed "anti-American" views?

Is that why Ann Coulter makes a fortune accusing liberals of "Treason"?

Is that why Tom Emmer said that Democrats are not "freedom loving Americans"?