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Protests force companies to reconsider whether they should take positions on issues


Big brands have become the most visible battlefields in America's culture wars. During this year's Pride Month, which ended yesterday, boycotts and protests focused on Target, Bud Light, Starbucks and even the Los Angeles Dodgers over LGBTQ support. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: First thing to specify is that not all companies are brands. Your local grocery store just wants to sell you some snacks, but a brand wants to connect with you on a deep level.

MARCUS COLLINS: You know, my razor's sharper, my toothpaste has 25% more fluoride - it's not terribly evocative.

SELYUKH: Marcus Collins is a marketing expert at the University of Michigan.

COLLINS: But if my brand of ice cream tells me that we should dismantle white supremacy, you go, whoa, nelly. That's a powerful thing.

SELYUKH: He says the strongest brands want to become part of your identity - think Apple or Tesla - because this way you might not only buy their stuff but evangelize for it. Add into the mix social media in a very divided society...

COLLINS: We go to greater lengths to signal who we are and who we are not.

SELYUKH: And when we disagree, we want to distance ourselves dramatically. People boycotted Spotify over disinformation on podcasts, Goya over the CEO's praise of Donald Trump. They burned Nike shoes for supporting Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the anthem. Now people are calling in bomb threats to Target stores and Bud Light factories. Boardrooms are reconsidering the risks of LGBTQ messaging.

COLLINS: You know, it was convenient to put a rainbow in June because the chances of you getting backlash is low.

SELYUKH: Today, conservatives are raising the stakes. Ron DeSantis and other Republican presidential candidates are even campaigning on a traditionalist view that companies should stick to the basics - make stuff, sell stuff and stay out of, quote, "woke" issues like transgender rights or climate change. Rutgers University law professor Carlos Ball argues this underplays the power of corporate America.

CARLOS BALL: I think it's a mistake to view them only as the providers of goods and services, period. They have always been and they will always be much more than that.

SELYUKH: Big companies set employment standards and cultural trends. They lobby lawmakers and fund advocacy groups. Corporations were long ahead of courts on LGBTQ workplace rights, for example. And these days, companies face lots of pressure to take a stand. Younger people tell surveys they want to know the values of their brands. Shareholders are starting to push for it, too.

KIMBERLY A WHITLER: There is a belief that you have to pick one side or the other.

SELYUKH: Kimberly A. Whitler is a longtime marketing executive now at the University of Virginia.

WHITLER: But what we're seeing is that that's damaging brands.

SELYUKH: Boycotts of brands often have little economic impact. Long term, people forget and move on. But Whitler says research suggests staking positions on divisive issues can hurt brand reputation. And wanting to take a stand creates a particular conundrum for brands built around mass appeal, which worry about alienating chunks of their audience.

WHITLER: Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's - these brands were birthed liberal, and it's absolutely fine for them to be liberal. What's challenging is when a company is birthed mass and then they want to start shifting.

SELYUKH: Can a big mass brand reach all sides of the ideological spectrum, and how? To Whitler, that's the biggest question now. Collins at the University of Michigan argues both-side-ism (ph) is a big reason why the fallout has been so huge for Target and especially Bud Light. The two had spent years supporting the LGBTQ community, but under attack, they flinched, he says. Target pulled Pride-themed clothes and Bud Light even issued a meandering apology.

COLLINS: And not only did they lose the people that they originally pissed off or offended, but then they lost the people they had been supporting for years, all to play to this mythological middle.

SELYUKH: People who are so uninvested they might choose a different beer just to stay out of the whole thing. I asked him, can a brand appeal to everyone?

COLLINS: Everyone? I think that's a myth. There's no such thing as everyone.

SELYUKH: Though plenty of brands will keep trying, fumbling their way to being both evocative and popular at the same time.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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