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Joanne Henry: Target’s brand-bruising may not be over yet

Earlier this year, Adweek reported that Target Corp’s brand value topped $25 billion.  That’s a lot to lose. These high stakes are why Target investors, and not just customers, are upset about the recent political contribution to conservative candidates in Minnesota.  I understand  why Target’s top management would favor  MNForward’s pro-business policies and  candidate Tom Emmer’s position on taxes. 

Of course, there’s more than tax policy at stake in the Minnesota governor’s race.  Somehow, Target missed the fact that many would be incensed by this donation, particularly given Emmer’s public anti-gay positions and links to the group, You Can Run but You Cannot Hide Intl. , a group headed by Bradlee Dean.

It’s true that others may have been equally infuriated had Target donated to more liberal candidates. Still,  I think this political donation was a big miss by Target, and  a big surprise to those who know Target for its marketing savvy. 

Target’s $150,000 donation to MNForward now has executives trying to calm boycott groups and to manage media coverage surrounding its donation.  CEO Gregg Steinhafel issued a statement and has tried to separate Target’s political donations from treatment of  its  valued guests and employees. The company’s attempt to separate its taxes and jobs position from the rest of its business misses a cardinal rule of effective communications: there can only be one message.

And, you can’t have a strong brand without standing behind it 100%. I think the apology fell short.

It is precisely because Target has such an incredibly successful brand image that its customers and others believe it means something personal to them. Target’s iconic, youth-inspired and inclusive brand has taken on a life of its own;  that’s why this brand bruising may get worse before it gets better.

I watched the YouTube video of the FlashMob demonstration in a Target store singing ‘Target Ain’t People’; it had more than 670,000 views and counting.  As someone who likes to buy on values,  I found the personal story videos  more interesting. There’s a woman who really wants Target to reconsider; she’s respectful, she’s quiet, she’s the mother of a gay son  mom on YouTube.

There are videos from people who seem conflicted; they say they know Target’s strong record supporting LGBT employees and its generosity; they like how Target has embraced up-and-coming designers, naturally without regard to gender preferences. They are reluctant boycotters.

Target has regularly been on Fortune’s list of the top 100 places to work.  I wonder if that will always be true. The way Target handles this issue may have a lot to do with that.

I want to be clear about the facts: Target did nothing illegal and also, nothing that unusual as a public company in its political donation. Since the January Supreme Court decision opened the way for corporations to make political contributions, many have opened their corporate checkbooks and Best Buy in Minnesota made the same donation to MNForward. Minnesota’s transparency in reporting those donations made this money trail public.

If Target had given money to more liberal candidates, they likely would have had other protests.  The growing trend toward financial transparency should dictate to Target that it can’t have one set of rules for giving by the management team and an entirely different set of rules for the rest of its business. (Target is known widely for its generous community donations and is a leader in spending marketing dollars on charitable causes.)  If I were a Target manager, I would not make political donations.

Target may have just learned that their brand means much more to people than even they intended. Target needs to be true to its brand at all levels of the company — or change it. I think their investors will agree. It is not enough to say, (paraphrasing), ‘we’re sorry you were offended.’  Target should say, “We were wrong about this. We’ll change.”

This post was written by Joanne Henry and originally published on Joanne Henry’s Weblog.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Tony George on 08/24/2010 - 09:11 am.

    I think that with CEO Greg Steinhafel, Target is an ultra right wing conservative political organization. The damage has been done for all customers who have a somewhat more moderate viewpoint than supporting the vicious anti-gay and anti minimum wage politics of Tom Emmer. Many will have this in their minds even if they do shop at Target. It might cause them to think twice about spending.

  2. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 08/25/2010 - 09:54 am.

    Since you say you want to be clear on the facts, we should be clear on this one; Emmer has no “link to You Can Run But You Can Not Hide”.

    It’s a story the Minnesota “Independent” peddled last spring, based on some fishy mangling of context…:

    …that, in the end, was pretty much devoid of fact:

    Face it; beside Andy Birkey’s lies, the only thing “anti-gay” about Tom Emmer is his support of traditional marriage.

    And if you look at the polls, that pretty much makes him the mainstream.

  3. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 08/25/2010 - 10:58 am.

    “Many will have this in their minds even if they do shop at Target. It might cause them to think twice about spending”

    Dunno, Tony. Their store over store numbers for Q2 are looking up. Their stock is faring about as well as any mid-level retailer, given the consumer confidence numbers.

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