Key Issue in Gay Community's Target Boycott: Sense of Betrayal

Supporting 'Pro Business' Candidate Harms Relationship With Loyal Consumers

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Steve Roth
Steve Roth
Gays and lesbians in America, and their friends and allies, have been riding a roller-coaster of news over the last few weeks. First, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled on Aug. 4 that California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, and that gays and lesbians have a right to marry.

Then a week later he said that he would lift the stay on his rule in one week, enabling gay marriages to resume in California as early as Aug. 16. And then just yesterday the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to keep same-sex marriages on hold until at least December. So gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry in California are still left waiting at the altar.

Throughout these same few weeks, retail giant Target Corporation has also been in the news for a $150,000 contribution it made to Minnesota Forward, a political action committee that supports Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, an opponent of gay marriage and gay rights.

Minnesota-based Target apologized for the contribution two weeks ago, and CEO Gregg Steinhafel assured employees that the retailer's support of the gay community was "unwavering." In an e-mail to employees, he said Target 's political donations were intended to support business objectives such as job creation and economic growth. He said that "Target 's support of the [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company."

Yet on Monday, the company rejected a request from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocate, to give an equal amount of money to a pro-gay candidate.

HRC reported that after two weeks of discussions and two tentative agreements, Target would not take any "corrective actions to repair the harm that it caused by contributing $150,000 to an organization supporting a vehemently anti-gay candidate."

The reaction to Target 's donation -- and its handling of the situation -- throughout the last few weeks has been swift and strong, with social media playing a key role.

The advocacy group and other gay rights supporters have called for a boycott of Target . It also launched an ad to support the effort.

On Aug. 6 and again on Aug. 14, hundreds of gay-rights supporters demonstrated outside Target stores in locations nationwide, and a petition promising a boycott, signed by more than 240,000, was delivered to Target nearly two weeks ago. A "Boycott Target " page on Facebook had more than 65,000 fans as of Aug. 17. Target 's own Facebook page is littered with disparaging "shame on you" comments from unhappy customers. And a "Boycott Target " flash mob even erupted recently in a West Seattle Target store.

The real rub in all of this is that Target has long been seen as a friend of the gay and lesbian community. It received a top rating of 100% for the last two years on HRC's Corporate Equality Index and Best Places to Work survey, a measure of the workplace practices of a company toward its own LGBT employees. The company has even been a sponsor of the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.

Electronics giant Best Buy and other Minnesota-based businesses including Red Wing Shoes are also being criticized for contributing to Minnesota Forward. But Target gave the most money. And, even more important, Target has enjoyed a long-running and positive relationship with the gay and lesbian community. So its actions feel more akin to betrayal by an old friend.

Target and other marketers should take away a few lessons from this whole public-relations fiasco:

  1. Examine your support of controversial issues and people from all sides. Clearly Target did not intend to set off an avalanche of protests and condemnations with its political contribution. But it should have vetted the political action committee, the candidate and his positions more closely.

  2. A company's relationship-building and outreach efforts to diverse segments of the market do get noticed. Ironically, it's because Target has done such a good job of marketing to gay and lesbian consumers that it now finds itself at the center of this firestorm.

  3. A good reputation takes years to earn, but it can be damaged in mere days or weeks. The long-term impact of Target 's actions on its relationship with the gay and lesbian community remains to be seen, but it's clear that at least some damage has already been done.

  4. Loyalty cuts both ways. LGBT consumers and other niche markets are fiercely loyal to those brands that support and engage them directly. But these same groups are also unforgiving of those who are perceived to have later turned their backs on them.

  5. Put your money where your mouth is. Target has had several opportunities to correct this situation with a similar donation to groups and candidates that support equality for gays and lesbian, but to date they have chosen not to.

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