Target’s Lady Gaga Problem

Live by the Gaga, die by the Gaga.

The Target boycott situation has gotten fascinating this week. Pop diva Lady Gaga is now being widely credited for pressuring Target to back off of its policy of using its customers’ dollars to play politics. From numerous LGBT publications to the The Motley Foolto a Los Angeles Times editorial, the conventional wisdom has become this: Target has sworn off politics, and Gaga forced them to do it.

But when I look closely at what Target Executives are saying, that interpretation seems to be inaccurate, or at least premature. As near as I can tell, Target has not announced a change of policy, only a change in process (i.e. the formation of a committee that will decide down the line). If Target has actually “adopted new guidelines for donations to trade associations that prohibit the use of the company’s contributions in political campaigns,” as a Los Angeles Times editorial said, I sure haven’t heard it from Target yet.

For instance, here is what Target VP of Communications Dustee Jenkins told Billboard:

Jenkins says she “didn’t think” Gaga’s feedback had resulted in direct policy change, but that she was one of many voices Target had considered in order to better understand issues concerning the LGBT community….

Jenkins says Target is now committed to being more “thoughtful” — she used the word 11 times in a half-hour interview — about the issue of political donations. But when asked directly, she couldn’t guarantee that Target wouldn’t end up making future donations to candidates with anti-gay voting records. “No,” Jenkins says, “but what I can say is that we’re going to use our policy committee to ensure that we’re being more thoughtful.

Thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful, thoughtful. Baby, we were born this way. But in all of those thoughtful words, I am not hearing “we will no longer give to political candidates.” In fact, MinnPost’s Joe Kimball was told that Target has developed criteria, which are listed in the article, to guide future corporate donations to candidates.

Still, perception is reality in public relations, and Gaga’s victory lap in the news media this week has created a perception that Target is done with playing politics. For instance, the Nonprofit Quarterly characterizes Target’s new Gaga-driven policy as “a new policy that prohibits donations from retail giant Target to be used by trade groups to influence elections or ballot measures.”

Talking in circles.

That doesn’t exactly square with the wiggle room Target executives seem to be trying to preserve.

I am not exactly sure what Target’s actual position is at this point, but the mushiness about the Committee and the Gaga victory lap seem to have put them in a newly precarious position.

On the one hand, if Target has finally pulled its brand out of politics, they are getting absolutely no public credit for it. Gaga is getting all the credit, because she is willing to speak directly, while Target executives are still mumbling circular process-speak.

On the other hand, if Target plans to keep its brand in the political firing line, they can now look forward to Gaga and her followers leading a new, higher visibility boycott, charging that Target broke the promise that millions of Americans are reading about this week.

And if Target still isn’t sure about its policy, it needs to make a decision. Events are overtaking the company, making a tricky situation much more perilous. Target’s new Committee on Thoughtfulness needs to immediately form a policy, and communicate it clearly.

– Loveland

60 thoughts on “Target’s Lady Gaga Problem

  1. PM says:

    i agree completely–they might think that they are being smart by creating wiggle room or whatever it is that they think they are doing, but by allowing GaGa to set the agenda this way, and not contradicting her, they are creating a lose-lose situation for themselves.

  2. Gary Pettis says:

    Well thought-out and smartly-crafted post Joe. I am a huge Lady GaGa fan even though I am not 100% in agreement with some of her stands on the issues.

    I am lucky to have several women friends Lagy GaGa’s age or a few years older. They are sharp, driven, self-assured and know exactly what they want out of life.

    So maybe that old stereotype that includes gum snapping, hair curling, too young for heels, and wishy-washiness about who is going to be the prom date should be transferred to the Target Executives.

    Dealing with hypocritical leaders is similar to shopping with one of the parents who take you to a store from one of America’s most recognized big box retail chains while at the same time trying to convince you you’re at the Gap.

  3. Newt says:

    In 6 months Target will be still standing and Gaga will be the next forgotten Madonna.

    It makes utterly no business sense for Target to proclaim an end to candidate giving in this era of political instability.

    95% of Target’s customers are straight, milktoast apolitical folk. Target is merely throwing crumbs to keep the liberal kooks placated or confused.

    1. Gary Pettis says:

      Gaga is the next Madonna, and Madonna wants to tour with Gaga to puts some fire in Madonna’s career.

      Gaga is here to stay. She is no one-hit wonder.

      As a conservative, when I read Joe’s posts on Target, I am seeing the White Elephant in the room: tokenism. Target’s employees from diverse backgrounds must be feeling like they are tokens when faced with two-faced leadership.

      This country put tokenism away years ago and it is hard to watch it re-surface in any form. Speaking from both sides of the mouth does that That is the issue, not Left versus Right; the strength of the Target brand; or the extent of Lady Gaga’s talent.

      1. Newt says:

        OK, so Gaga is the next Elvis.

        Just what sin has Target committed? How have Target’s employees been victimized? What prevents them from waking up in the morning and going to work?

      2. PM says:

        I think, Newt, that you yourself put your finger on Target’s problem–they are trying to be all things to all people, and the net result is that they will inevitably piss some people off a whole lot.

        They need to make a decision (give or don’t give, if they decide to give, then they should say how they make their decisions) and then stick with it–and if it pisses some people off, too bad–but they should make a decisions that THEY are comfortable with for the long term, and then ride it out. Eventually people will accept them for what they are, and they will no longer be the focus of controversy.

        But right now they are the focus, because everyone on all sides of the issue feels that they (Target) can be manipulated. That is what lady Gaga is doing–she is manipulating them. And they are allowing her to do it. All of which is fine, as long as target doesn’t change its mind and then go back to doing what it really wants to do–then it will have succeeded in pissing everyone off, and everyone will feel that Target lied to them.

        General Mills has a reputation, and Cargill has a reputation. they do not have the same reputation, but everyone feels that they are both consistent with their reputation. Target is being inconsistent, and that makes them, well, a target. Unitl they behave in a consistent fashion, they will continue to be a target.

      3. Joe Loveland says:

        Re: Gaga is “manipulating” Target

        No doubt, Gaga is trying to influence Target’s behavior, and that constitutes manipulation. But if you’re feeling like she crossed a line, I don’t see it that way.

        Gaga seems to have essentially said, “Steinhafel, if you want me to help you make a bunch of money and rebuild your brand with a boycotting and grumbling customer base, promise me that you aren’t going to turn around and use the profits to play gay bashing politics…and ruin MY multi-million dollar brand in the process.” I don’t blame her for that.

      4. PM says:

        I have no problem with gaga manipulating Target, and i have no problem with anyone else doing so either–or any group.

        It isn’t a question of right or wrong in my mind–rather, target has left themselves open to this sort of thing.

        If target doesn’t like it, what they need to do is create a policy, and stick to it. Once people realize that the policy is the policy, and that target won’t be manipulated, then people will stop trying to manipulate target, and will accept target for what Target is–maybe they like target, maybe they don’t.

        Basically, i agree with you, Joe–they have created their own problem, and they are being remarkably hamfisted in trying to deal with it.

      5. Joe Loveland says:

        Right, and if Target thinks it needs the Gaga’s and Michael Graves of the world to maintain its hip brand personality, this chapter proves to them that the Koch government relations model doesn’t fit that heretofore successful strategy.

  4. Newt says:

    You’re right – Target execs need to grow a pair and flip off the agitators.

    Target shoppers and employees also have a right to go elsewhere, and the should exercise that right if they are aggrieved.

    1. PM says:

      If they really feel that giving contributions like they did in the last election cycle is important and the right thing to do, then they should just come right out and say it, and no more of this bullshit back and forth dithering.

      If they are forthright and steadfast, eventually this will all die out–some people might never shop there again, but they can survive that–and, if the Steinhafels, etc., are right, then the company will be better off.

      But what they are doing right now is stupid, and the worst of all possible alternatives. They are unnecessarily prolonging the agony, and pissing more and more people off. They keep this up, and eventually no one will be happy with them.

      1. Joe Loveland says:

        You nailed it earlier, PM. Target’s leadership is simultaneously trying to be the corporate personification of Oprah — a generous, tolerant pop culture icon beloved because she is so different than her formulaic competitors — and the Koch brothers — a feared corporate political player fixated on maximizing tax and regulatory avoidance above all else.

        The result is a discordant, confused two-headed monster.

        The old Target drew loyal customers and a creative workforce who built a corporation with both a heart and a healthy bottom line. It’s been an extremely successful formula for them. Long live the old Target.

  5. Joe Loveland says:

    This is what the old Target model achieved (lifted from Target’s website):

    Institutional Investor magazine ranked Target No. 10 on its “2010 All-America Executive Team: Most Admired Companies” list – 2010
    CollegeGrad.com named Target to its list of “Top Entry-Level Employers” – 2010
    Interbrand Design Forum said Target has the second most valuable global retail brand – 2010
    Fortune magazine ranked Target No. 22 on its list of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” – 2010
    Experience.com named Target one of the “Best Places to Work for Recent Grads” – 2010
    Women’s Wear Daily magazine ranked Target 7th on a list of Ideal Employers, based on a survey of more than 2,000 undergraduates interested in the fashion, retail and apparel sector – 2009
    BusinessWeek magazine recognized Target as 8th out of 69 companies for Being a Great Place to Launch a Career – 2009
    Forbes magazine ranked Target 41st on their list of “America’s Most Reputable Companies” – 2009
    Ethisphere Institute ranked Target among the World’s Most Ethical Companies – 2009
    DiversityInc magazine named Target one of its “25 Noteworthy Companies for Diversity” – 2009
    Forbes magazine named Target one of “America’s Most Popular Stores,” citing the latest findings by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) – 2009

    It seems like the old Target has proven pretty darn good at attracting customers and the best and brightest employees. If it aint broke…

  6. Gary Pettis says:

    BOD’s and investors are annoyed when icky things happen to the companies they lead and to which they commit investment dollars. Icky things can chip away at a company’s reputation. They create distractions and cause resources and time to be diverted to respond to outside scrutiny .

    Too much icky makes a case that organizational and leadership changes should be made. (RE: BP after the oil spill.)

    A sullied reputation trickles down internally to lower employee morale, reduce productivity and diminish interest in being “the best and the brightest” in a once-great company. It lessens the pull to attract the best job candidates in the market.

    Here’s a nice quote to mull over:

    “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
    – Warren Buffett

    Sidebar: The use of the word icky above is demonstrable proof that I am not a middle-age fella.

  7. Newt says:

    These comments are hilarious. Do you people really believe you represent the mainstream when it comes to Target’s reputation?

    Using the 80:20 rule, go ask 100 Target shoppers or shareholders about Target’s reputation, and >80 will say glowing things.

    A bit of a faux controversy, don’t you think?

    1. Gary Pettis says:

      Newt , your thinking says that no business should worry about negative publicity. If that’s the case, thousands of corporate PR positions should be eliminated. Don’t you agree?

      All of those communications plans whose purposes are to help manage crises, advocate positions and connect with customers are not worth the server space where their files are stored.

      Right? Let the chips fall where they may.

      If the job of a company is to be the top player in its market and destroy the competition, the impact of negative publicity causes genuine concern.

      The top dog in this field is Walmart and it is most likely delighted to see the little pup Target in this situation. If there is bad press to be had, let the other canine have it. Wouldn’t you agree?

      1. Newt says:

        Gary – Wal-Mart probably delights in this “controversy” because it knows enough stay above the fray and ignore the Chihuahas biting its ankle.

        Target dignifies this nonsense by acknowledging the Chihuahas.

      2. Gary Pettis says:

        Newt, remember that it is okay to demand the Dog Whisperer when a little Chihuaha with a wanton look in its eye is going at it on the shin bone. A moment of creepiness can escalate into a face-losing situation that generates long-term consequences.

      3. Joe Loveland says:

        I should note that a young adult relative of mine had to get many stitches in his lip and face due to an animal attack earlier this year. The attacker was a Chihuahua. I kid you not, and the little thug apparently was a serial offender, who therefore spends much of his life in a muzzle, Hanibal Lechter style. It’s the truth. Check it out, Politifact. So, factor that into your analogy.

  8. Mike Kennedy says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with what Joe is doing or the observations he and others are making, but I agree they are not the mainstream Target shoppers.

    The left also might want to see a therapist about the Kochphobia syndrome that apparently is consuming the movement.

    I say this as a friend and with sincere concern.

    1. Danny B. says:

      “The left also might want to see a therapist about the Kochphobia syndrome that apparently is consuming the movement.”

      Is that how the right dealt with their case of schizo-Soros?

      1. Mike Kennedy says:

        In answer to your question, yes.

        The right needs to get over George Soros funding the far left and the left needs to get over the Koch boys. This is an interesting piece, but let’s fact it — the New York Times in general is liberal (let the howling begin.) So it really doesn’t matter to me. I expect this stuff.

        I find it hard to be outraged at the NYT for portraying all the money on one side of the equation. Fox does plenty of Soros linking.

        Quite frankly, I have no problems with either. Just read the label before you buy.

  9. Joe Loveland says:

    As I’ve said before, there are probably 5-10% of Americans who are liberal enough to avoid shopping with stores widely known to be conservatives and 5-10% who are conservative enough to avoid the rare corporation that will support a liberal. Devoted ideologues do follow such issues and do vote with their feet to some extent. So, I agree that the number willing to monitor and adjust their shopping over the long-term is relatively small, but there are a lot of companies who aren’t willing to endanger off 5-20% of their customer base (i.e. the amount you lose if you piss off both the right and left by swinging both ways) for the right to play political reindeer games.

    After all, executives work night and day for years in order to increase sales by a percent or two. I promise you, many don’t shrug it off when 5% of their customers get angry and vocal about something.

    As I’ve also said before, reputation damage isn’t a line in the corporate books, but that doesn’t mean that reputation damage has no financial impact. An interesting observation in the NY Times column on this subject:

    “What is the value of reputation? BP’s progress with its oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico gives support to recent estimates that the disaster could eventually cost the British company less than $30 billion. Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, took a $550 million slap on the wrist to settle fraud charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    But shareholders have paid a far heavier price for these episodes than the quantifiable damage suggests. That deficit has one obvious explanation: the cost of reputation harm. Goldman shares, for instance, rose only modestly after its deal with the regulator. That left its market capitalization at about $75 billion, around a fifth lower than its value on April 15, the last day before the S.E.C. filed charges.

    Almost half of that loss is attributable to the fall in global equity markets, taking the MSCI World Index as a benchmark. After backing out the paltry penalty, there is a bit under $10 billion of value destruction to explain, or some 11 percent of Goldman’s value, adjusted for falling markets.

    It’s a similar story at BP. The group is worth about $115 billion, about one-third less than its value before the gulf well blew on April 20. Adjust for the fall in global markets over the course of the spill, and back out the latest estimate of the likely costs of the cleanup and compensation, and there’s still approaching $25 billion of value destruction to account for.

    That is 14 percent of BP’s adjusted market value. It would be too crude to conclude from this analysis that reputation is worth 11 to 14 percent of market capitalization, or that BP somehow has slightly higher “reputation leverage” than Goldman does. Both companies face continuing business challenges arising from their troubles, and the British oil company’s predicament is still much more uncertain than Goldman’s.

    What is clear, though, is that reputation has huge value. Companies need to guard theirs vigilantly.”

  10. Newt says:

    These aren’t useful analogies.

    An oil spill and an SEC violation are not even close equivalents to a company exercising its Constitutionally-upheld right to freedom of donations (speech).

    In other words, Target behaves lawfully and ethically.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      So forfeiting sales and a beloved reputation and brand only matters if the degradation stems from matters of strict legality or ethics?

      P.S. I would like to note for the record that the analogy critique comes from the author of the Chihuahua analogy. At least the NYT analogies relate to our species! Have a good weekend, Newt…

  11. Jim Leinfelder says:

    Huh, I’ve always thought of TARGET as little more than a place to get a good price on the quotidian crap one needs in one’s life that is merchandised in a manner that isn’t a depressing dump like Wal-Marts. And I appreciated having a store in downtown so I don’t have to shlep to a suburb.

    But they grossed me out with their single-issue support of a neanderthal the likes of Emmer. It struck me as short-sighted and smacked of being a poor corporate citizen, an erosion of what I used to regard as a longer-term wisdom at the top.

    It diminished my comfort in setting foot in the joint, so now I don’t. I’m sure they don’t care.

    1. Gary Pettis says:

      Newt, remember you can save five to 10 percent by buying those groceries at Cub or Walmart. During this economy, it should be more about value than being a flag waver for the mainstream while indulging in the red shopping experience.

      It’s impossible to have it both ways.

      1. PM says:

        You can save even more at Costco!

        Not only that, but Costco is a good corporate citizen, and the CEO does not indulge himself in offensive salary/bonus (although he certainly could, judging by his performance and his peers).

        Besides, one of the things i like about costco is that the people who work there seem to be having a really good time–they genuinely appear to enjoy their work. Definitely not the case at walmart!

      2. Gary Pettis says:

        No qualms here about Costco. Consistent company mission and values are good things whether shoppers agree with them or not.

        Shop away and find those bargains.

        Of course, it is uncertain if Newt is the sort who likes to buy whatever Kool Aid Newt is drinking in bulk.

    1. PM says:

      True. Both are places that it really does not make a lot of sense to utilize unless you are going to do so regularly and in a certain volume. Not for the casual shoppers.

  12. Newt says:

    Maybe you guys can shuffle down to the nearest Uptown Coop in your Birkenstocks with your reusable hemp-woven shopping bag to buy a couple of scoops of whole grain muesli harvested by sustainable farmers in Hastings, knowing that they never donated to the Emmer campaign.

    I think that’s the solution to the Great Target Dilemma.

    1. PM says:

      Don’t forget that we will all be riding our bicycles, or maybe driving an electric car. If only we had a high speed train option!

      And i only buy my meusli from members of the Minnesota Farmers Union!

  13. Mike Kennedy says:

    I had to out a few hours ago and passed Target so I stopped to get cleaning supplies for the house. It was so busy in there I got claustrophobic and left — went to the mom and pop hardware store down the street.

    Those registers were working overtime. I didn’t avoid them because of the donating issue — but I don’t think they missed me just the same.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      “I had to out a few hours ago and passed Target…”

      Talk about your ironic typos. Or did Freud say there were no typos?

    2. Gary Pettis says:

      Mike,

      I trust that during your brief stay at the St. Cloud Target, the powerful observations that only a seasoned reporter can make were indeed made. In other words:

      *Where there a bunch of unmuzzled chihuahuas running around and lovingly latching their front paws onto the calves of shoppers?

      *Where there a few muzzled chihuahuas being captured with nets and then strapped to and hauled away in miniature two-wheel carts, Hannibal Lector-style?

      *Was PM in the grocery section reading the nutrition labels on some of the items and saying things like, “eat a lot of this stuff, and you’re a goner?”

      *Was Loveland in line at the customer service counter, holding service number 99, and did his face turn Target red when the next number called was 16. Was he a trooper and wait things out until his number was called because his boycott is now over?

      *Did Festus throw the Florida Grocery Shopping Coach’s coupons in the air after she told him that in less than a year after she made her YouTube video, the Sweetway Supermarket chain closed five stores in the Tampa Bay area and was forced to re-tool its business model?

      *Was Newt pushing a shopping cart and wearing a red polo shirt in the way that some people wear Renaissance garb to the Renaissance Festival even though they are not festival employees?

      *Was Leainfelder rummaging through the discounted books section to find a deal on a new dictionary so that he could find the definition of “phallocentric” and inventory-up on a few new hoity-toity words that can be unleashed on you during the next locking of horns.

      *Finally, did Benidt, wearing dark sunglasses and a small disguise, abandon his neighborhood Target and drive to St. Cloud to purchase Lady GaGa’s “The Fame Monster” CD so he can hear what the fuss has been all about?

      1. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Well, I think the Academy need look no further for next year’s Oscar host. This is definitely Oscar night quality material, Mr. Pettis.

      2. Mike Kennedy says:

        Gary, that was quite good — you’ve still got the flair for characterization, just as colorful as the story on the Mettler’s duo circa the Reporter.

        I am now checking in from sunny Scottsdale and the Target Corp. show seems just as frantic down here as in Minnie, only people are wearing less inside.

  14. Joe Loveland says:

    From Bring Me The News: Trillium Asset Management, one of the groups that filed shareholder resolutions in opposition to Target’s politicking, reviewed the Target policy, revoked its shareholder resolution, but added:

    “Word for word, this new policy does not prohibit a repeat contribution to a candidate or organization that espouses an extreme anti-gay agenda. But we believe that Target could not fail to have learned from its mistake.”

    Trillium says something similar about Best Buy in the same article.

    So, I’m doing the same thing. I’m ending my Target/Best Buy boycott, but keeping my ear to the ground. I bought me some stylin’ chip clips at Target yesterday. It’s good to be back.

  15. Newt says:

    Target impervious to Gaga, contrived political controversy

    MINNEAPOLIS – Feb. 28, 2011- Target’s fourth-quarter profit rose 11 percent on strong holiday sales and reduced credit card write offs.

    Target Corp. reported net earnings of $1.035 billion for the fourth quarter ended January 29, 2011, compared with $936 million same period a year ago.

    Earnings per share in the fourth quarter were $1.45 per share, up 17 percent from $1.24 in the the same quarter last year.

    Click here to be directed to the company’s press release.

    Same store sales at the retailer’s 1,750 Target, SuperTarget and Target.com stores increased 2.4 percent in the quarter.

    Target generated $20.66 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, up 2.4 percent, and retail sales were up 2.8 percent to 20.28 billion. Credit card revenue declined 17 percent to $384 million.

  16. Joe Loveland says:

    And news from the right…

    Anti-gay AFA Claims Growing Boycott of Home Depot

    By Tom Hymes
    Feb 28th, 2011 01:53 PM

    TUPELO, Miss.—Christian hate group American Family Association is claiming that half a million people have pledged to boycott home building retailer Home Depot over its corporate support of the gay community. The AFA, which mislabels itself a “pro-family advocacy organization,” issued an announcement Monday in which its president, Tim Wildmon, was unabashed in his threat against Home Depot.

    “The Home Depot has said it is committed to advancing homosexuality in the public square and will continue to do so, even if it goes against good business practices,” he said.

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