Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

A recent high-profile political donation and an underwhelming apology shows that Target does not realize how personal people take the retailer’s brand.

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.