When Brands Go After Moral Issues, $hit Happens

I have heard Bruce Springsteen preach on his recent tour about how our country is more divided than ever and unfortunately his sentiment is correct. Whether it is moral issues, economic remedies, or governmental philosophies, we as a nation see more fundamental differences being vocalized.

And there is no room for brands to be part of these debates. I say this not from a moral and ethical point-of-view, but as a person who is strictly assessing appropriate business conduct aimed at maximizing business results.

These past few weeks, we have seen two brands take wrong steps to become active in one of the most heated issues in society … the rights of gay citizens.

Dan Cathy, Chick-Fil-A President and the company’s founder S. Truett Cathy, has shown a strong anti-gay stance and have passionately stated opposition to gay marriage. Among other things, he has been quoted in interviews stating, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

So why would I bother to cover this issue? For brands, the issue is that it affects business. Simple as that. While there are a host of undocumented cases of people pulling their support and patronage of Chick-Fil-A, I’ll highlight a few publicized actions.

In February, Northeastern University officials revoked plans for a campus franchise after “student concerns reflected [Chick-fil-A’s] history of donating to anti-gay organizations.” And one month earlier, New York University student Hillary Dworkoski launched a petition to close the only Chick-Fil-A franchise in Manhattan.

But the other side of the debate has its wrong doings as well. Case in point, Oreos. As part of Gay Pride Month, Oreo showed its support by posting a rainbow cookie on their Facebook page.

Yes, there was some support for this gesture, but backlash as well. Actual groups popped up on Facebook denouncing Oreo’s actions and stating such things as “Kraft foods and Oreo cookies have decided to toss the morals that formed our great nation right out the window and literally toss them right down our throat! Boycott Oreo cookies and hit them where it hurts…in the wallet.” There was much conversation on Twitter as well. While there was 80% positive sentiment support for the action, almost 20% was negative. Can a brand actual say, “I don’t care about 20% of my target market and if they don’t support my views, I can do away with their business?”

This is the real issue. Everyone working behind a brand must be responsible for demonstrating actions that support business objectives of the brands. Gay rights play no role in the brand conversation.

Whether you like it or not, a brand has an agenda to push, but it is not a moral agenda. It is a product or business agenda. Brands must focus on increasing market share, revenue, and profit. And every brand action should be done with those objectives in mind. That is the responsibility of the employees behind brand execution.

I have one suggestion to remedy the errors made by both Chick-Fil-A and Oreo … maybe they should collaborate and come up with an Oreo-crusted chicken fillet being served at Chick-Fil-A. Maybe that would create some harmony in the world.

Make It Happen!
Social Steve

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15 Comments

Filed under brand communication, brand marketing, brand reputation, brands, Social Steve, SocialSteve

15 responses to “When Brands Go After Moral Issues, $hit Happens

  1. Jaime Block

    one word. passion. Definitely not the normal Social Steve topic or tone, but you made some really good points.

  2. jamarspeaks

    I saw some pretty intense discussion on Facebook this weekend about the chick-fil-a snafoo. While I do feel that, if they know what’s best for them, brands should steer clear of controversial issues, I do believe that it can become a defining part of the brand conversation.

  3. Well worth the read, life should be open and we should all feel the ability to be ourselves online. But it is so important as you’ve pointed out that a brand is just that and can start to exclude its customers by promoting an opinion. Something to be careful and mindful of when speaking anywhere offline online.

    • Mark – I think that is the difference. We can all be ourselves online. But a brand is NOT self. It is a position, product/service, and promise to a target market of potential buyers. Thus I question whether a brand can take a stance on a moral issue and be certain that business objectives are not hurt.

      • Social media is giving the idea that “Corporations are people, my friend!” a thorough vetting. It’s not yet clear how far they should go in taking on the mantle of “just folks”, with freely held and expressed opinions on moral, religious, and political issues. They have a higher (?) purpose, the corporate requirement to behave in ways that generate profits and maximize investor value.

        It will be interesting to see how the intersection of social media (with its implied demand that brands “act like people”) and the ongoing controversy about corporate personhood (currently established in law via “Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company”, 118 U.S. 394 [1886] and “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”, 558 U.S. 50 [2010]) plays out.

        If taking strong controversial positions in social media hurts the bottom line, it may not matter how strongly the CEO of Chick-Fil-A feels about God’s position on same-sex marriage, or how much Gay pride Nabisco has: the market will tell them what they can get away with saying.

  4. Jim Matorin

    Interesting post. As Jaime stated, not your typical Social Steve post. I do agree that brands have an agenda to push, companies too, but I think we are beginning to witness policy changes in our quest to be transparent. Companies need to state their position as it relates numerous issues that are top of mind with people these days. Your example is about gays. Controversial, but real. People are going to want companies to share their policy on this topic – work environment is a hot button. What about Heinz’s “Join the Growing Movement” http://bit.ly/NYn3qG, they are communicating their policy about the environment, maybe a less sensitive topic, but look how it has become a part of their brand initiative. They are spending money behind it too!

    • I think the difference with an “environmental issue” is that no one will say they do not want a better environment. While the issue on gay rights is controversial, I do not think it should be. Everyone should have the same rights independent of sexual orientation. That is my personal view, but I would not make it as a brand. To Mark’s point above, I can express myself, but I am not expressing my views behind any brand and my views do not represent ANY brands I work with or for.

  5. Christina

    “Wrong doings as well” is a stretch for describing a pretty picture and a message of support. Hateful rants of ignorance and ill will should not be equated to Oreo’s campaign.
    True, it is in a company’s best interest to maximize market share and profit margin if they intend to make money and grow. However, we -as a market- have come to expect more from corporations today. Take a look at any major business and you’ll see some kind of corporate-social responsibility program. The thoughtless, heartless corporations of efficiency not only miss out on positive marketing opportunities, they disconnect themselves from their customers. I applaud Oreo’s efforts to humanize their corporate image. They tried to promote a happy family brand image, blind to gender and preference. The 20% of negative responses makes me sad, but trying to shame Oreos for their efforts is worse.

    • I am not saying that Oreo’s act was wrong, but rather that it was not a prudent business communication. And yes, I do think that corporate social responsibility is an important business function … it just needs to remain a positive impact on the business.

  6. Sandro Camarao

    Great article, but I think some brands can benefit on taking certain positions if it agrees with a large percentage of the target audience and goes along with their market message. Take chick fil a. This company is predominatley in red states and closes on Sunday due to religious reasons. Though they may lose some patronage on their political position, they will strengthen brand loyalty with the majority of their audience.

    Brands should think hard about taking a position but for some brands, it may work to their benefit. It’s all about their audience.

    • I hear you, but now politicians are in the mix – Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee speaking out. I cannot think this is a good thing for a brand – liberal or conservative sided.

  7. Rickey

    It is great that we live in a country that gives us the right to freedom of speech. Unfortunately you can’t please all the people all the time; therefore it is good to have some morals that one can rise to verses following the $hit all the way down the toliet.
    Losing $money for one’s view is small when compared to those who have given their lives for their view and the right for us to have our own views. We can not dehumanize government, businesses, brands, corporations, and organazations as they all consist of people. It was the person and not the chicken that was asked his views, what did the oreo say again?
    Please forgive me as i disagree with Bruce, our history teaches us that we have been more divided in the past. The USA is one nation under God, a great melting pot and it takes time for some things to melt
    It was Walt Disney who said, you can dream dreams, but it takes people to make a dream a reality. I am glad that people have made a reality out of the dream of the United States of America. Please speak the desires of your heart with your vote.”Only Registered US Citizens can vote, 1 vote per person.

    • Rickey – I believe diversity … it is one thing that makes our country great. And I totally agree with you on … “Please speak the desires of your heart with your vote.”

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