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

Public reaction to the company’s move was positive – unlike what happened to Target.

General Mills headquarters

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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.