Target’s Stance on Gay Rights Takes Ironic Turn as Home State Passes Equality Bill

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Minnesota nice gave way to a bit of Minnesota irony on Wednesday as Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill legalizing gay marriage equality in the state. The irony is that Governor Dayton is the scion of the Dayton’s department store chain which became monster retailer Target, the same Minnesota-based retailer that created a PR disaster for itself when it funded his vehemently anti-gay rights opponent in 2010.

Target was no more forward looking just three years ago than it was last year. It’s a lesson in brand legacy other companies can learn from.

Just six months after a statewide referendum to ban gay marriage failed, Governor Dayton signed a marriage equality bill before more than 7,000 onlookers. The move makes Minnesota the 12th state to legalize gay marriage. How shortsighted does Target Corp.’s only three-year old reasoning look now? In 2010, when the brand came under fire for supporting Dayton’s anti-gay equality Republican challenger Tom Emmer, the retailer said its decision was “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests.” That statement—and Target’s foot-dragging over the consumer outrage and protest in the wake of the news—severely damaged Target’s theretofore gay-rights-friendly image. The brand damage has faded but lingers to this day.[more]

Taking Target’s “business interests” reasoning at face value—CEO Gregg Steinhafel and Target senior management were all revealed to have personally donated to many anti-gay candidates—the decision now looks perversely out of touch. Even when Target had a chance to join its peers and oppose the gay marriage-banning amendment last year, it didn’t. While other large Minnesota-based corporations like the Carlson Companies and General Mills grabbed the high ground and spoke out against the ban, Target remained silent. General Mills CEO’s reasoning at the time? “We see it as a business issue that’s not good for our state, our employees and our company.”

This idea that long term business is better served by being on the winning side of history is what is motivating brands like Starbucks, which, after joining other Washingtonians RealNetworks, Group Health Cooperative, Concur and a little Seattle-based Internet retailer called Amazon.com to support marriage equality in the state, has continued to very publicly promote its pro-gay marriage position.

Despite its ongoing gay-friendly brand positioning, Target’s public stance remains mindboggling, nonsensical and outdated. Addressing Minnesota’s gay marriage ban amendment in 2011, CEO Gregg Steinhafel said, “Our position at this particular time is that we are going to be neutral on that particular issue, as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view…” A year later as the state’s vote to ban gay marriage approached, Target refused to update its position even as the retailer ran ads that used gay marriage imagery to promote its stores, a decison that hardly seems “neutral on that particular issue.”

As brandchannel has noted, there is precious little fence left to sit on for brands when it comes to gay equality, as Chipolte recently learned when the chain thought it would harmlessly sponsor a Boy Scout event.

When the Supreme Court recently debated same sex marriage, those that came out in support included brand names as diverse as Apple, Google, Intel, Amazon.com, Facebook, Salesforce.com, Qualcomm, Zynga, eBay, Pfizer, Aetna, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Thomson Reuters and Alcoa. Really, what company wants to feel less progressive than an aluminum producer?

That irony—that had Target’s “business decision” paid off, Minnesota would today have no marriage equality—should weigh heavily on not just Target but also over the executive offices of numerous other large, influential companies that think their brand can remain agnostic forever. (Take note automakers, 56.8 percent of Michigan now supports same sex marriage, a nearly 13 percent increse in one year.)

Even Greyhound, a historic Minnesotan company launched in 1914 is seemingly more progressive than Target. The brand confirmed to brandchannel that it is installing a permanent exhibit at its Duluth museum to highlight its role in the American Civil Rights movement and the now historic 1960s Freedom Rides.

A gay marriage-legal Minnesota—which, just six months ago was thinking about a legal ban—should be a lesson that brands out in front of the trend will have a positive legacy to point to forever. Greyhound now notes its positive role in the civil rights battle in its company’s official history. It’s a shame that Target will never have a similar notation.

(The above Target ad promoting its wedding registry ran in April 2012.)

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