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In the Line of Fire: Marketers and the Greater Good

We’re in a world transformed. In today’s landscape, consumers expect brands to be sustainable, inclusive and to take a stand on social causes. Even more so, studies have shown over and over that younger generations may even actively punish brands if they don’t take a stand – or don’t do so authentically – on the issues that matter most to them. 

But with the success of many of these social causes, especially LGBTQ+, a vocal minority has dramatically increased how much they are pushing back – and not just with their wallets. This is a rallying cry to be aware of and a call to plan for those whose voices may overshadow their actual impact. 

Take Target. The retail giant decided to support the LGBTQ+ community through merchandise, which they have done for decades. However, because of the backlash they received in 2023, they decided to pull products from the stores, citing the threat of violence to associates. Because of this the LGBTQ+ community felt abandoned and got loud about Target caving to a vocal (and potentially violent) minority. 

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. In Target’s case, were they supposed to put their associates’ safety in jeopardy? Or were they supposed to bend to the 16% of people who say LGBTQ+ representation makes them less likely to purchase a brand? 

Given the seemingly impossible choice, what is a brand supposed to do? The short answer: Don’t stop. 

Strong brands have the opportunity and the privilege to be able to make a positive impact on society and sales simultaneously. Cheerios is a fantastic example. In 2013, the beloved cereal ran a spot featuring an interracial family – one of the first from a major CPG brand. The backlash was so fierce Cheerios disabled the comments section of its YouTube channel. 

When that happened, it sparked a national conversation that went well beyond the brand. Not only was the outpouring of support for Cheerios incredibly strong, but consumers also responded with their wallets, and sales of Cheerios went up. In fact, sales grew so sharply that Cheerios later brought the interracial cast back for a 2014 Super Bowl spot. Shortly thereafter, Honey Maid embraced an even broader version of the “American Family” and sales skyrocketed 400%. 

And now, you can’t watch a commercial block without seeing at least one interracial family. 

So, knowing the potential for backlash, how can brands navigate our increasingly volatile environment successfully? 

Continue to make sure there is brand alignment. 

First and foremost, brands should continue to make sure the causes they choose to support align with their authentic values, their actions and their customers. I commend Bud Light for its effort to demonstrate inclusiveness by partnering with a transgender influencer. But ultimately, despite it being a good cause, it wasn’t surprising that the move received considerable blowback from their customers. Their audience just isn’t ready for that – yet. 

Target’s problem was absolutely not brand alignment. Their very well-known design philosophy is “Design for all.” Not to mention their history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community is long-standing. Their original decisions absolutely aligned with their brand. 

Make sure the brand goes beyond performative. 

Whatever the cause, consumers are cognizant of, and watching out for, brands that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Make sure your brand is truly committed to the causes you are supporting and not just using them to support marketing. Do your brand’s efforts go beyond the Pride Month window? Are you aligned with organizations that support these causes in a way that’s not tied to sales? How can your brand live out these values on an ongoing basis? 

Have a plan for how you will respond (or not) to the naysayers. 

Lately, it is not a matter of if brands will receive pushback for supporting social causes, but more a matter of how and when. Brands should plan ahead and be prepared for the pushback by working with their PR and operational teams to have a crisis plan in place, so they are making decisions that are strategic and not based on gut reactions forced by the pressures of a limited response time. Decisions range from how to respond to social media, to press, to individual consumers, etc. – both online and IRL. 

This was Target’s problem. Because they weren’t expecting the blowback they received (and how can anyone blame them, since they had been doing it for 10 years?), they didn’t have measures in place to make methodical, informed decisions that aligned with their brand while also ensuring their employees felt safe. Brands need to try to anticipate potential negative scenarios and to be able to account for them. While it is a time-consuming process, it will ultimately help your brand and your sales. 

Ensure you are accounting for your employees’ perspective. 

Social causes don’t impact only your customers and prospects, they also impact your employees. With 1 in 5 Gen Z adults identifying as LGBTQ+, pride is certainly relevant to both, as Starbucks recently experienced. Three thousand of their workers recently went on strike when Starbucks supposedly banned pride decorations in its stores. 

With the support the LGBTQ+ community has received from brands over the past decade, it is sad to see the type of backlash Target experienced. But caving to the demands of a small group of negative consumers is like caving to the demands of kidnappers (even when those “kidnappers” are consumers who are entitled to have and voice their own opinions). In the long run, it is only going to make things worse. We should encourage safe and respectful voicing of opinions, not bending to and therefore perpetuating aggressive and violent consumerism. 

Integrating corporate beliefs into corporate actions is not going to stop the naysayers in the short term, but a tidal wave of corporate beliefs and actions can definitely create a culture shift so that they are less vocal in the future while driving brand results. Look at Nike after the blowback from supporting Colin Kaepernick – after a short-term, short-lived sales drop, within one year Nike’s stock price was up 60%. 

Polarizing environments don’t mean brands should walk away from purpose-driven initiatives, but we as brand stewards should be prepared, go beyond performative, and plan for the long run – even if (for our friends at Target) that means upping security for the short term in highly polarized markets to ensure both employees and customers have the support they need. 

Fly that flag. We’re here for it.

about the author

Stephanie Spicer  At the core of Stephanie’s work is a deep passion and a laser focus on helping clients win. Her background in brand strategy and client service is proof she can drive growth at all levels. This includes serving as a vice president for Grey in New York. There, she helped consumer brands such as Oreo, Advil, Tanqueray and Botox connect with audiences ranging from affluent boomers to millennials to moms. 


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