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.

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