And the biggest Brand mistake of the month goes to — Target.

Congratulations to Target on being the dumbest Brand of the month — possibly the year.

After the Supreme Court decision that rendered corporate campaign contributions legal and limitless, Target made a contribution to a Minnesota politician named Tom Emmer. Emmer is against gay marriage — and while I disagree with his beliefs — he does have a right to them.

Target’s contribution, however, has created a serious issue for their brand that may snowball out of control. While many politicians are smart enough to avoid hot-button issues like marriage – for both electability and contributions – Emmer embraces them. Instead of making donations to a generic candidate , who happens to oppose Gay Rights, Target stupidly entered the fray of the Gay Marriage debate by funding someone who is actively campaigning against them. Brilliant.

To make things even worse, Emmer is a supporter ( both financially and personally ) of Bradlee Dean, an unconventional minister / rock musician with some fairly extreme views on homosexuality, including the supporting the practice of executing gays and lesbians.

So Target contributed money to Emmer, Emmer said some things that are offensive to many of their customers, and then Emmer gave some money in turn to Dean who said things are beyond offensive to even more of their customers. That’s a fine mess they’re in.

Target is going to be giving tons of money to hundreds of candidates , because we live in a society where cash contributions mean political access and favors. Few people will have the foresight, or ability, to figure out which of the people they need to support to get some patronage are – for lack of a better phrase – polarizing assholes. This is a sad fact, but its unavoidable.

Anyone in PR and branding with half a brain knows that mistakes happen and people can forgive. But instead of condemning the situation, saying “This is awful – as are the comments”, backstepping out of the situation, and then making a 10x contribution to a politically related yet entirely non-offensive charity ( like a halfway house for at-risk LGBT teens ), Target said nothing. Days later they issued a statement that basically says “So what? Deal with it. We’ll contribute equally to politicians on both sides as we see fit, and this isn’t our fault.”.

Sorry, that’s not good enough. In fact this is bad, downright stupid, and will hurt the Target brand dearly. Instead of distancing themself from hate-speech and a politicized situation, Target is defending their actions. Consumers are now becoming outraged not only at the politics of the situation, but the arrogance of the corporate stance.

In a few weeks, Target will probably be forced to make amends and have a press conference where they apologize to hurting customers but they did no real wrong, and then make some sort of token goodwill gesture or contribution. It will be a touching moment that is perfectly executed after being orchestrated by a PR fix-it consultancy along with a gay lobby group that makes them realize that they can severely hurt the brand and bottom-line. Unfortunately this will be a forced moment – and one that should have come much sooner.

Making contributions to candidates is a dangerous game; your brand can become tied up in political nightmares no one should face. Most large contributers are smart enough to donate to Political Action Committees (PACS) that are rather nebulous — Save the Earth, Save the Environment, Save the Puppies, etc — then let them deal with funneling money to political campaigns. In fact, many PACs are nothing but intermediaries and shell groups designed to make political contributions to candidates with controversial stances non-offensive. Contributions like this can ensure candidates get their payoffs, and contributors get their patronage. Why Target strayed from this puzzles me.

Target injected its brand into a heated political topic, and shouldn’t have. Target had a lot of opportunities to backstep and pull out and they didn’t – in fact, they made things much worse. The subject matter of the debate is irrelevant — this could have been healthcare, sick puppies, immigration, or really anything — a mass-market brand should always come across as politically neutral.

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