Category: Everything is Advertising

YOUR BROWN EYES ARE MINE

Eye Makeup for Brown Eyes6
Nice brown eyes. You owe me $20.

So, apparently, the venerable Borghese family, a family of 1000-year-old Italian aristocratic lineage, is being sued by Borghese, Inc., a company founded by one of them, Princess Marcella Borghese, in the 1950s to sell some foofoo water under the brand name, Princess Marcella Borghese. This brand and company was sold to Revlon in the 70s, who turned around and sold it to M&A conquistadora Georgette Mosbacher in the early 90s. Now Mosbacher is suing the family for having the temerity to use its family name to make a further living. Mosbacher is claiming she owns all uses of the family name, Borghese.

Ho hum, I know. When the 1% have a cat fight, it’s so much fun.

Aside from the obvious lack of merits in the case (at least to me; I’m no lawyer, of course, but does one member of a family have the rights to sell the family name in the first place?) this feels like just one more example of companies behaving like bullies, at the expense of their own brands. Borghese, Inc. is not giving love. Violation of Rule #6.  Also Rule #2: Perception is Reality.

Imagine if McDonald’s or Disney or Ford were to sue anybody with those family names (and there are probably millions) to stop them from using them. Those companies are anything if not hyper-vigilant trademark enforcers, but they stop at the unreasonable and ridiculous. They’re also savvy to the value of brand loyalty and imagery. They know it’s not smart to be a jerk. Not Georgette Mosbacher though. That’s now her personal brand. (Incidentally, I just registered the name Mosbacher with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so she’d better lawyer up.)

As the NYT article linked above referenced, there’s also been the case of bad-PR-magnet Chick-fil-A suing some little silk-screener in Vermont for daring to use the phrase “Eat More Kale” on his homemade T-shirts, which CfA apparently thought was way too close to its unique “Eat Mor Chikin.” Yes, CfA, that imperative sentence (with its adorable misspelling) has never, ever been used in the English language in any variation before your copywriters thought of it and your copyrighters trademarked it. Just before the gay-bashing misunderstanding of last summer, the fast-food chain had already covered itself with bullying glory with this let’s-pick-on-the-little-guy lawsuit. Chick-fil-A (or is it Chik-fil-A?) seems to go out of its way to give us reasons to boycott them.

The Patent Parasites

And then there are the patent parasites; genetic and software companies who lay claim to the rights to things discovered in the natural world (like your genes) or ideas so obvious they aren’t even ideas (like backing up your files online, a claim by Intellectual Ventures of Silicon Valley).

There was a victory for common sense in this regard, however, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Myriad Genetics could not enforce patents it claimed it owned on the discovery of certain genes responsible for breast or ovarian cancer in women. This was such a forehead-slappable ruling (they even had Clarence Thomas write the opinion) on a blatantly evil ploy by a company to try and make an extortionary buck off of the suffering of millions of women, that it amazed me the plaintiffs had the gall to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. But greed has no shame.

It did, however, dash my own nefarious plans to become the richest man in the world. I have noticed, over decades of meticulous and exhaustive study, that a majority of human beings have brown eyes. This is my life’s work. I don’t think anybody else noticed this before. So I’ve filed a patent to claim brown eyes as my intellectual property. If approved (and before the High Court’s clearly anti-free-enterprise ruling, I had every expectation it would have been), I would have been able to charge licensing royalties to anyone on earth possessing brown eyes…brown eyes I discovered. I wasn’t going to be greedy, though: I figured a low, annual licensing fee of $10 per eye very affordable and reasonable, possibly a buy-one-get-one promotion or with a family plan for big savings. But multiply that by the estimated billions of brown eyes on the planet…well, let’s just say I would have been able to afford the legal army to enforce my patent forever (with surgical spoons if necessary). But now the activist, anti-innovation, anti-capitalist Supreme Court has rendered my life’s work and investment worthless. Thanks again, Clarence Thomas.

You can win the battle and lose the war.

Companies that indulge in bullying (aside from law firms and equity ventures), making IP lawsuits against individuals who pose no threat to them, seem to be stuck in the narcissistic notion that their right to own something because they saw it or thought of it trumps what the public thinks of them–that same public they want to win over and keep as loyal customers.  It is just plain stupid. At least from a branding point of view.

The article in the NYT quotes an IP legal specialist, Kenneth Port, a law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minneapolis, “We’re seeing a growth because trademark owners are finding that the more kind of bullying conduct they do, the more the trademark is worth. They think they have to act like a bully to get the trademark stronger.”

I would respectfully submit that this is thinking like a lawyer, not a marketer. Since your brand really only thrives in the minds of its perceivers, to poison those minds with bad karma poisons your brand. Your brand means “bully.” Sometimes the best defense is no defense.

This may be showing my 20th century psych-major prejudice, but it seems that the people who make these patent/trademark suits (from Georgette Musbacher® to the ironically named Intellectual Ventures) have, somehow, become stuck in what Freud described as the oral phase of early childhood development. Everything they see they want to stick in their mouths, to ingest the whole world into their bodies… like The Blob.

But The Blob didn’t exactly have a great brand, and it ended up being frozen and dropped in the Arctic. Something that will happen to Chick-fil-A, Intellectual Ventures, Georgette Musbacher®, and any company that acts like a bully…if they aren’t nicer.

But this isn’t to say you should never defend your trademark or your patent. In fact, I would recommend that you do so zealously. But with common sense. Pick your battles. If someone seems to actually be trying to steal the equity in your brand to enrich themselves, or sell fake Oakley sunglasses, by all means go after them with your SEAL Team of IP lawyers.  Just think about the context, though, and what the cost to your own image (not to mention the cost of the lawyers) that would do. Don’t pick on the little guy (sometimes just a friendly personal phone call can do more wonders than a lawsuit). And don’t be a jerk.

Still, you do have such pretty brown eyes. Twelve billion of them.

 

 

Cafe Wi-Fi: No good deed goes unpunished.

No-WiFi zone
Bless her heart. Wonder how this is working for her.

Caféteurs* are facing a marketing dilemma. The ubiquitous availability of WiFi connections has made it almost as standard a requirement for a café’s amenities as restrooms and a full thermos of half-n-half. People need to be able to surf the Internet on their tablets and laptops while they enjoy the fare. Or they’ll just go someplace else. But the dilemma comes when those people won’t leave. Long after they’ve done with their coffee, they’re still there, taking up a table. It’s just rude. And new customers, coming in at peak times, see that the place is full and turn right around.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

One frustrated chain, Panera, has tried limiting access. An innovative company, Panera was one of the first café chains to offer free WiFi, long before Starbucks.  And they’re one of the first to suffer the flood of WiFreeloaders.

The original marketing idea was to attract more customers, looking for faster connections than they get at home. But lately it’s starting to backfire. Customers won’t leave. Some won’t even buy drinks or food. They just come in, plop down, open up their laptop, and hog a table for hours. To discourage this, Panera is experimenting with a new policy: You now get 30 minutes of WiFi and then you’re cut off. This clears the tables, but it also pisses off regular customers, who always have a sense of entitlement from their weekly $1.47 coffee order.

I myself experienced this when I was meeting with a client at a Panera. We lost our connection in the middle of some online research we were doing, abruptly closing our meeting. It was like being kicked out of a conference room at Intel. My client was steamed and swore he’d never patronize Panera again. I suggested we move to the Starbucks across the street (no, that other one–no not that one, either, the one next to it) where we picked up where we left off on their free WiFi. But he still kept glaring back at the Panera, plotting his boycott.

Other solutions

An entrepreneur in Moscow, with Tsiferblat Café,  is trying something radical (What? Radical? in Russia?) by charging for WiFi access but offering the food and coffee free. This is a riff on the old Las Vegas marketing model in which the drinks are free while you’re busy throwing away your kids’ hope of ever going to college. Of course, that model is based on the fact that drunks are more reckless about making wild bets, the life blood of any casino. We’ll see how well the Moscow marketing experiment goes.

I’m sure other caféteurs are trying different solutions to get these people who won’t leave to…well..leave. But also come back. Panera, according to some articles, is reportedly thinking of awarding free WiFi only to members of their frequent nosher program, MyPanera (don’t take the “my” literally). I can also see a promotion where you get a temporary log-in password entitling you to so many minutes depending on your “points” or the size of your tab. This would be a reverse of the 6th Unbreakable Rule; Give Love to Get Love–Get Love before you Give Love.  It would still rankle customers who are not yet MyPanera members.

You can also do like Lulu de Carrone did at her Lulu’s coffee shop in New Haven, Connecticut and just ban laptops and WiFI altogether. Everyone predicted that she’d soon go out of business, but, partially thanks to an APM Marketplace story on NPR reporting on her Luddite stand (yes, pun intended), she says she’s busier than ever–as a haven for fellow Luddites, presumably. Ironically, we couldn’t help but notice when we visited Lulu’s website; you can still order your coffee online…just not on the premises.

Of course, it’s just wrong, to my socialist mindset, that we should have to depend on some  retailers to provide WiFi at their own expense, even as a marketing ploy, for us iParasites.  Their margins are thin enough as it is. Why isn’t WiFi a public utility yet? In some cities in the world (Seoul, for instance, with its citywide IEEE 802.16e WiMax) it’s been one for years. And the growth of 3G has made at least mobile access independent of WiFi.  But until access truly does become like air–free–the burden of providing it is going to fall on the poor café operators.

Don’t abuse your host. Be a courteous guest.

But what can we, as customers do? Well, as patrons, we could just be more respectful of other people and not abuse the gift. This is part of the 6th Rule, too; giving love works both ways. When a restaurant starts to get crowded, we could look up from our screens and say, “Hmmm, maybe I should pack up and give someone else a seat.” Or if we were alone we could only occupy a small table instead of spreading out on a four-seater like I’ve seen a lot of people do. Or we could occasionally order another mocha or cookie.

Another thing we could do is something they’ve long done in Europe, the land of the rude waiter, where the tradition of the sidewalk café is centuries old. We could just sit down with strangers. If you’re at a table in a café in, say, Paris, or Venice, or Amsterdam, you’ll not be surprised when perfect strangers just sit down at the empty seats next to you. Of course, In North America, this just isn’t done. We respect each others’ space. That’s why our ancestors, with their anti-social genes, immigrated here to begin with; to get away from crowded, sidewalk cafés (and you thought it was for religious freedom). But there’s really nothing preventing us in the Seven Billion Strong 21st century from sitting down with a stranger who is only partially occupying a table. Given the North American tendency for being polite, the likelihood that person will get up and leave without causing a scene (we don’t do that either) is pretty high. We just don’t know how to confront rudeness like the self-respecting Parisian.

Finally, there’s always the effectiveness of the Full-Tray Hover. Try standing next to someone hogging a table with their iPad, passive-aggressively holding your full tray over them. They’ll get up and leave. You won’t even have to say anything.

*I’m taking a liberty here with this word caféteur. The French slang definition of “caféteur” is a stooly or squealer. But I don’t mean that; I mean a proprietor of a café, like a restauranteur runs a restaurant.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

ATT Video Bill 1I don’t know how many of you have received your AT&T Wireless bill as a video recently. I’m not kidding.  So now, what used to take, oh, 15-30 seconds to log on, scan your bill and pay it, now walks you through a playfully animated video that takes two-and-a-half minutes to endure enjoy. It’s so cool because there’s your own name, right there in the video and spoken so personally by Happy Lady Voice, (OMG! How’d they do that?  I absolutely love her! And now she knows my name!). And there are your actual charges, also animated (the miracles never cease!).  The cartoon runs you through all the exciting new features of your bill, features you might have had to once view statically, without flying colors and foot-tappable music. Oh, this brave new world we live in!

But I have to wonder; who sold them this? How is it supposed to be an advantage to view your bill as a video instead of just as a plain page with a “Pay Now” button? Does it make the bill more exciting? Does it make up for the high price, the surprise charges, the dropped calls, the slow download, the two year lock-in contract?

ATT Video Bill
This is not my actual bill. Don’t get excited.

I happened to be in a coffee shop when I checked my e-mail and up popped this video, blaring out of my mobile’s tinny speakers and annoying the people at the seat next to me while I frantically fumbled to mute it. (Heh, heh. Sorry.)  Do the marketers who embrace these new “customer engagement technologies”  think of things like that? That they might be annoying? That they might waste time? That maybe I don’t want their bill all wrapped up in dancing graphics with blaring music and read to me by Happy Lady Voice?

It’s still  a bill. Just give it to me.

If you  search on YouTube for a sample of this, you’ll notice that the “Dislikes” outnumber the “Likes” by four-to-one.  I hope somebody at AT&T is noticing that.

Just because you can do something with a piece of technology, doesn’t mean you should.

How you pay your employees is part of your marketing budget

So here’s the thought experiment: Say you’re starting a retail business. Doesn’t matter what you’re selling; let’s just assume it’s something really nice, something people really want…the new iThingamabob®, for instance. Okay, now hire some people to sell it for you; pay them minimum wage, make them work long hours without overtime, don’t provide them benefits, treat them like paper towels, and let them know you’ll fire them if they sit down on the job or look at you funny. Now sit back and enjoy how they’ll work their butts off for you to sell your products and give your customers great customer service.

Of course, this is a “straw man” thought experiment. Common sense will tell you they won’t work their butts off and they won’t give your customers great service. They’ll be sullen and won’t care if your customers are happy or not.  They’re probably also exhausted because, in order to make ends meet, you’re probably only one of their employers. And they’ll be out of there the first chance they get to work for anybody who pays them more, or even treats them like human beings. So you’ll have to spend more money on a recruiting firm to keep replacing them. And your unemployment insurance premiums will go up. And you’ll have more shrinkage in inventory (they’ll get their compensation somehow). But hey, you’re at least saving your customers money by being stingy with your help.

Your employee costs should really fall under your marketing budget.

Employee compensation (not to mention simply treating employees like you value them) can actually be measured as an investment. In a recent article in The Atlantic by Sophie Quinton, the case is made that the incredible growth and success of three retailers, CostCo, Trader Joe’s, and QuikTrip, is a direct result of how well the employees of those companies are compensated. While an average checker in the U.S. makes about $20,000 a year (putting her or him below the poverty line), the average checker at these three companies makes double that. Yes, on the books that makes for higher cost of sales. And yet, in spite of those higher costs, those companies boast higher revenues and greater earnings, even during the Great Recession, and even more than low-cost rivals like Wal-Mart. (see MSN Business: Why CostCo is walloping Wal-Mart) Hmmm. Why do you suppose that is?

Could it possibly be because those employers are smart? Apparently they don’t see their employees as consumables, like cleaning supplies and cash register tape. They also realize that the morale and job-satisfaction of their employees has a direct relation to how they relate to their customers, and their customers’  experience shopping there.

In other words, they seem to regard their employees as part of their marketing.

It’s Rule #6: Give Love to Get Love

In our book, The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing, Rule #6 is Give Love to Get Love. It just doesn’t mean loving your customers (and your shareholders), it means loving your staff.

Your employees are the human face of your company. In order to get the very best from them, they have to feel like they are valued. Their morale has to be high. And they have to feel like they are taken care of. This includes not only making sure that their hourly wage is livable, but that they have health and dental, maternity leave if they need it, adequate time off, and an environment that is conducive to productivity.  As CostCo’s CEO, Jim Sinegal once put it, “This is not altruistic, this is good business.” *(See NYT “How CostCo Became the Anti-WalMart”)

As an actual experiment yourself (vs a thought experiment), go into one of these stores and notice the customer service, the attitude of the employees toward you and each other. Ask for help and see what happens. If you don’t have a CostCo, Trader Joe’s or QuikTrip handy, then you must surely have a Starbucks (another successful company that attends to the well-being of its employees). Then go into a store known (fairly or unfairly) for stingy employee compensation, say, oh,  I don’t know–Wal-Mart, for instance–and notice the attitude of their employees.  Again, ask for help and notice the level of enthusiasm. Is it any wonder why CostCo is stealing Wal-Mart’s lunch money…I mean market share?

Okay, that’s fine for retailers, but what about B2B?

Even if you are a B2B business, this Give Love to Get Love rule still applies when it comes to your employees. Countless studies from MIT’s Sloan and other business schools have demonstrated that good employee compensation leads to better products, more solid customer relations, more efficient operations, more productivity, lower turnover, and higher profits. Even while so much manufacturing has gone to low-wage countries like China and India in recent years, the “high-paid” U.S. still remains, per-capita, the most productive in the world, by a wide margin.

When I was just starting in my advertising career, I worked for an agency in L.A., DJMC (Davis Johnson Mogul & Colombatto–now Davis Elen). Even though my gruff boss, Bob “Collie” Colombatto, liked to hear himself say, “I don’t need to thank my employees. I thank them every two weeks in their paychecks,” he did thank us very warmly in those checks. We were extremely well-compensated. We had luxurious benefits (by today’s tightwad standards)–full medical and dental. And the company was overly generous with its holiday bonuses. As a result we all worked like maniacs for those guys. During the six years I was there, we in the creative department were not only raking in the meaningless industry awards, the company grew over 500% in billings to $100 million. So all that butt-reduction work and overly generous compensation was paying off–and the Bobs (Colombatto and Davis) were generous in sharing the profits with their employees. We would have done anything for those two, and they knew it.

Years later, when some colleagues and I started our own agency, we were resolved to create the kind of company we ourselves would want to work for. In my mind that model was DJMC. So we paid our staff well. Though we were a small company and weren’t mandated to do so by state law, we provided healthy benefits (medical and dental). We were generous with holiday bonuses. We were generous, too, with our employee policies. And when the company took a systemic hit from the economy, we, the owners, took the hit first in our own compensation rather than take it out of our employees.  The result was dramatic growth and profitability, an industry low in employee turnover, and extremely efficient operational costs. Our employees showed us their love by working like maniacs and bending over backwards for our clients. And our clients, in turn,  loved us by hiring us like maniacs. It was a maniac’s love fest all around.

It cost something. But it made us more.

It’s not an expense; it’s an investment.

I’ve said this before. And I’ll keep saying it: What you spend on marketing is not an expense (in spite of what your accountant may tell you), it’s an investment. You should expect a return on what you invest in marketing. But I’ll go further with this and state, categorically, that what you spend on your employees is also a marketing investment. Their enthusiasm to work their butts off for you, to represent you to your customers, either in the quality of the products they make or in the service they provide, will pay you back in direct proportion to what you invest in them. So invest generously. Then look for the return.

Let’s not kill our customers, okay?

This is a little quirk of mine. I’ve mentioned it to any and all who roll their eyes and say, “Yes, we know. Now get over it.” But I’m not quite blue in the face, so here’s my plea:

Can we in marketing stop referring to our audience as “targets”? Please?

A target is something you shoot at. Or drop a bomb on. When I was in the Navy, one of my (many) collateral duties, besides choosing the movies to show in my squadron’s ready room, was Targeting Officer. It was my job (along with all the other Targeting Officers on our aircraft carrier) to select, analyze, and recommend targets for destruction to our command. Mostly they were contingencies, just in case the country in question pissed us off and we got the order from the White House to unleash hell (coded and authenticated by two-man control, of course). But the operative word here was “destruction”.  That means wrecking property and taking lives. That’s the job of the military. And it was the specific task of targeting.

So now, when I hear the term used in marketing to describe the people who you’d like to buy your products, I wince.

Make Sales Not War.

A few years ago, long after we’d gotten over the national trauma of Vietnam and before we got into less traumatic Afghanistan and Iraq, it was fashionable to use the Marketing-as-Warfare metaphor. Marketing professionals (who had themselves rarely been in an actual war) loved to use martial language to put hair on their otherwise low-T careers. They talked about “taking the high ground,” “planting the flag, ” or “stealing a march” on the competition. They didn’t just introduce new products, they “launched” them, like you’d launch a missile. Like the military they grew to love TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) to describe otherwise banal abstractions like CPM (Cost Per Thousand–the “M” means “mille”), USP (Unique Selling Proposition), CTA (Call to Action), QSR (Quick Service Restaurants–you know, Fast Food), SEM (Search Engine Marketing).  It’s all been very Pentagony. The very term “campaign” came from bellicose origins. And potential customers, of course, were now “targets”.

The military origins have pretty much disappeared through overuse and these terms are now accepted as industry jargon. But, as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, the subversion of language can have a subversive affect on our view of the world. I’ve come to think that the hyper-aggressive language now used in marketing has colored our view of our customers. When we “target” them, I think we unconsciously regard them as marks, as prey, as the enemy. Language has that insidious power. We are horrified whenever someone uses a racial epithet because we are conscious that it diminishes and dehumanizes the person. But I would submit that using the term “target” to describe your customer, also diminishes and dehumanizes that person. Only we’re just not conscious of it.

When Mark Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn, few European-Americans were conscious of the offensive nature of the “N” word on our African-American fellow citizens.  It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement raised all of our consciousness about the offensive power of that word, and the malicious intent of it, that it came to be proscribed. Now it is disconcerting to read that classic and see that now-offensive word so liberally (ironically) used in a conversational way.

I want to proscribe the term “target” in reference to our customers. You know, for Dr. King.

“Well, what else are you going to call them?”

I was actually challenged by a colleague last week, as if he couldn’t think of an alternative.

How about just “customers”? Or, we could fall back on the old phrase they used when I started in the business, “intended audience”.  Not as macho, granted, and a tad literal. But it’s descriptive. An audience is composed of people you want to entertain, to interest, to cajole, to entice…in short, to persuade.  Marketing isn’t just about selling stuff; it’s about persuasion. And it’s certainly not about destruction.

So, let’s just think before we speak, shall we? Maybe (and this is the ’60s in me coming out) if we stopped calling them a “target market” we’d subconsciously love them more. And maybe get better at persuading them.

Now excuse me while I go back to playing Call of Duty.

 

The Unbreakable Rules

Unbreakable-Rules-of-Marketing_book_LinkedIn
Correct the oversight.
Order now.

We didn’t make up these Unbreakable Rules. We’ve just always known about them. They’ve always been there, like the Law of Gravity. Newton didn’t make up that law; he just discovered it. Same with these 9 ½ principles. So just in case you wanted to know what the 9 ½ Unbreakable Rules of Marketing were but were too cheap busy to buy the book…well…here they are:

1. Consistency Beats Ability

The sad truth is, when you’re only consistently good, you’re still going to beat somebody who’s only occasionally excellent.

2. Perception is Reality

It’s what people believe that motivates them, not the facts. Control that perception and you’ll influence behavior.

3. Be Creative or Die

Nobody ever bored their customers into buying their products. If you’re not creative in your marketing, you’re invisible.

4. The Medium is Not the Message

If your message is strong and memorable, it doesn’t matter what medium you use to send it, it will find its own wings.

5. Work Hard to Keep it Simple

All marketing should be simple. But you need to work obsessively to keep it that way.

6. Give Love to Get Love

Success in anything is ultimately reciprocal. It all boils down to the fact that if you love your customers, they’re more likely to love you back…and want to do business with you.

7. Emotions Rule the World

By the time a person is weighing their options rationally, they’re only looking for reasons to back up what their heart has decided in a millisecond.

8. Go Big or Go Home

There are no shortcuts in marketing. No magic spells. Unless you go all out with your marketing, you won’t go anywhere. Put in all your effort, and you’ll be unstoppable.

9. Everything is Marketing

Marketing is not a separate department of your business. Every little thing you do leaves an impression. Everything is an ad for your business, yourself, your cause.

1/2. Know the Rules and Know When to Break Them

Any rule can be ignored, even unbreakable ones. But before you break one of these rules, think hard about why you’re doing it. And make sure the upside far outweighs the down.​

How not to brand your business

Recently there was a scandalous story in Portland, Oregon about a bakery owner that not only refused service to a same-sex couple trying to order a wedding cake for themselves on the grounds that the very idea offended his religious beliefs, but proceeded, apparently, to personally berate the patrons to the point of tears.

This reminded me of a similar, larger story last year involving Chick-fil-A’s CEO Dan Cathy making anti-gay (pro-traditional marriage) remarks on a nationally-syndicated, radio talk show. Or years earlier, Carl Karcher, Carl’s Jr CEO, taking a similar, very public, anti-gay stand. Karcher, Cathy and the bakers in Oregon all said that the issue was about their 1st Amendment rights to practice their religion and voice their beliefs.

But the real issue is brand suicide.

When you’re in business, everything you do is marketing. And everything you do colors your brand. I don’t want to get into the constitutionality or  rights of anybody to practice and proselytize their personal religious doctrines. (There are already far too many self-appointed constitutional experts in the world.) But what I do know is that, constitution or no constitution, when you publicly make a spectacle of yourself, it can’t help your business.

Following the Chick-fil-A incident, thousands of people flocked to the fast-food restaurant to show their pro-traditional-marriage (or anti-gay, depending on your point of view) support. But then the story and the cause subsided and what was left was a bad taste in millions of other people’s mouths about the Chick-fil-A brand, millions of people that didn’t need to be offended. Millions who otherwise really liked the taste of Chick-fil-A.

What good does it any business to go out of its way to offend a significant percentage of its customer base? The foot-traffic bump the chain got from Dan Cathy’s public opinions and Mike Huckabee’s call for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was more than offset by the long-term damage to its brand and sales. In fact, in the months following Cathy’s remarks, CfA, which had been rated quite high among QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) by the market research BrandIndex, plummeted by 60% of its previous high ranking in measured brand perception. What good did that do anybody? Especially innocent, leave-me-out-if-it CfA franchisees.

In the brand CfA’s defense, Cathy only uttered his anti-gay (or pro-traditional-family) opinions when directly asked on a Baptist-oriented call-in show. He didn’t go out of his way to offend customers, as the Portland bakery owners did. And my hunch is, that in a city as indigo blue as Portland, the  brand-hit on a tiny business like this little cake maker will be far more harmful than that on Chick-fil-A.

In another example, here’s a case–not publicized at all–of a company, long known for its strong, socially-responsible, community-sensitive positions, allowing one of its stores to unthinkingly offend customers: Starbucks. I have old friends, Palestinian-Americans, who were shocked one day when they patronized a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan, only to find that it was running a little one-store campain to raise money to support Israel’s right to build settlements on the West Bank. I’m sure the manager had his heart in what he thought was a good place, but what he ended up doing was alienating a whole lot of otherwise loyal customers who will never, ever go into another Starbucks–even ones completely unaware of what happened at the one in New York.

I can’t imagine Starbucks corporate headquarters knowing about this, or allowing it. And I was at pains to explain to my understandably offended friends that it probably wasn’t the company’s policy. But the bell had been rung, and they didn’t want to hear reason. They were pissed. And Starbucks needlessly lost customers for good.

Can’t I just eat a hamburger without making a federal case out of it?

Now, admittedly, it’s getting so everything is so polemical lately that you can’t even buy a bag of sweat socks at Penny’s without making a political statement. I’ve never seen so many angry mobs trying to boycott this and rally around that. Most of us are just reasonable. We want to enjoy our soy Frappuccinos, our iPads, our bacon-chipotle cheeseburgers, and our organic, gluten-free kale chips in peace.

But if you’re in a business that depends on customers from a wide cross section of humanity, you might want to think twice about going out of your way to use your brand to flog a controversial cause. Some causes are, equally admittedly, strong enough to warrant the flogging, even with the risk. But consider the risk and calculate; can your brand take it?

And if you’re more offended by the lifestyle, sexual-orientation, race, religion, body-mass-index, gender, age, politics, citizenship, or ethnicity of your patrons than their money, then maybe it’s time to think of selling your business.

Here’s my advice to people trying to run a business: Its success depends on your customers. And every time you are dealing with customers, you are marketing not just to them, but to their entire network of friends. So, while you may not approve of some aspect of their lives–or even like them personally–remember, they are still your customers.

Just think first.  That’s all.