Marketing the Rainbow
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Target Corporation is the eighth-largest retailer in the United States and ranked number 37 on the 2020 Fortune 500 list with a total revenue of some $80 billion. The company has found success as a cheap-chic player in the industry: the tagline since 1994 has been "Expect More. Pay Less". As of 2020, Target operated 1,868 stores throughout the United States. They employ over 350,000 people and are headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The company states: "Our team rallies around a single purpose: to help all families discover the joy of everyday life. That purpose and our inclusion of “all” directly connects to our inclusivity value as a company. We champion a more inclusive society through creating an inclusive guest experience, having an inclusive work environment, ensuring we have a diverse workforce and leveraging our influence to drive positive impact on society."
In August 2014, Target’s executive VP Jodee Kozlak said in a blog post that “everyone should be treated equally under the law,” but same-sex marriage bans make it harder to attract talented employees and create uniform benefits plans. Target signed onto an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit supporting two cases challenging state bans on same-sex marriage - in spite of the 2011 pledge to not get involved in the debate.
The move led antigay groups like the National Organization for Marriage, the Liberty Counsel and American Decency Association to launch a boycott against Target, calling the move a “slap in the face to millions of pro-family customers.” The boycott failed miserably, generating only 3,000 signatures.
This 2012 interactive ad appeared on several wedding websites, featuring two men gazing into each other's eyes with the slogan: "Be yourself, together. Build a Target Wedding Gift Registry as unique as the two of you." This ad was one of several couples, also including a biracial couple and a young white couple.
Ironically, Minnesota-based Target was not officially in support of same-sex marriage. Spokeswoman Molly Snyder reportedly stated that the company was neutral on a proposed state amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman (BTW: the measure failed.)
Target proceeded to release a commercial featuring two gay dads. Responses to the video were overwhelming positive on YouTube. The clip was part of the new “Made to Matter – Handpicked by Target” campaign. This collection brought together 17 leading natural, organic and sustainable brands to introduce new products and make them more accessible to guests. The launch video included gay men Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan for the Method brand.
How one donation goes a long way...
Target became the target of a boycott by LGBT in 2010, when it was discovered they had donated $150,000 to pay for TV ads supporting the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Emmer, who wanted a ban on same-sex marriage. The donation was made for the business stance of the candidate, not his social views.
Target had clearly made a mistake by not checking all facts, or rather underestimating the coming to light of their donation - but the backlash was strong. Target initially declined to publicly discuss the matter in detail, but with protests mounting, Target's chief executive, Gregg Steinhafel, wrote a letter of apology to employees, explaining that the company's political donation had been a misguided effort to foster economic growth. "While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry. The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests." He added that the retailer would more closely review any future political contributions.
Target has been annual sponsor of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival and contributed to pro-gay organizations, like Project 515. They also offer domestic-partner benefits to its workers.
However, from denial of support for same-sex marriage, alternated by a YES, to donations for anti-LGBT politicians, limited access to Pride collections, back to collaborations with LGBT charities and artists.
This article was last updated Mar 21, 2021
As the debate over marriage equality heated, Target followed suit by launching a charitable T-shirt line in support of gay pride: a first. They offered a total of 10 T-shirts, including two designed by rock singer Gwen Stefani, as part of a decade-long partnership with the Family Equality Council, a Washington, D.C.-based LGBT advocacy group. Target donated $120,000 of sales proceeds to the Council.
"Target is 100 percent committed to the goal of families being respected in all communities including parents who happen to be LGBT,” Jennifer Chrisler, the council’s executive director said. “This is just a continuation of that support.” Interestingly, the T-shirts were only available online through the month of June, a move which came across as somewhat half-baked to some authorities. "I would have been more impressed if they had actually stocked all their stores with the shirts,” ad executive Tim Bennett, who specializes in marketing to the gay community, told Marketplace.org.
Luckily, the campaign drew the attention of the bigots: “Target is attacking traditional marriage, which is an incredibly misguided thing for them to have done,” said Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, a group campaigning against marriage equality. “It’s an insult to the overwhelming majority of their customers.”
A number of campaigns sprang up to point out that Target was not being a good LGBT ally. A clip by MoveOn.org was deemed so “controversial” that MSNBC refused to air it (which, of course, just generates more buzz about the boycott) — but perhaps that was because MSNBC’s owner GE, much like the News Corp., regularly makes contributions to political groups and would hate to see that practice criticized.
Months after Steinhafel publicly apologized for the donations, it was revealed that the company had made several more contributions to
politicians who oppose gay rights. The contributions led to a national boycott of the retailer.
Note: as it happened, Emmer was running against former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, whose family founded Target before selling it. Dayton supports same-sex marriage. And won the election.
Subsequently Steinhafel told shareholders that the company would remain neutral on a proposed anti–marriage equality amendment in Minnesota, the state where Target is based.
Lady Gaga was collaborating with target to release a limited edition of “Born This Way” (a portion of the proceeds going to gay rights groups), but after the donation debacle, she cancelled this campaign.
In the midst of these controversies, Todrick Hall created a fabulous flash mob to gay icon Beyoncé's End of Time in a Target store.
Pride T-shirts, 2012
Starting in 2015, Target rang in Pride Month by introducing a rainbow-themed clothing and accessories line as well as an inclusive ad campaign. The #TakePride line was available online and in select stores. It included T-shirts, swim trunks and flip-flops, as well as headphones, iPhone cases and other products.
Laysha Ward, Target’s Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer: "We’re making our message loud and clear: Target proudly stands with the LGBT community, both as a team member and team player through all that we do – from our volunteer efforts to our long-standing partnerships with groups like Family Equality Council and Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, to the very products we carry in our stores and online."
In a move that could add even more complexity to its history with the LGBT community, Target is now selling greeting cards honoring same-sex marriages. The cards feature phrases like “Mr. & Mr.” and “Two very special women, one very special love.” The items began appearing on Target’s card racks a month after the Minnesota-based retail giant controversially began selling T-shirts commemorating Gay Pride month.
“Target is focused on diversity and inclusivity,” Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said. A campaign video showed "the making of" some personal cards.
Around the same time, Target announced they would not carry Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ album. They said it was because it was released a week early on iTunes - others blame it on the fact that Ocean had his coming out as a gay man not long before.
Target has a 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which scores American businesses on corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees.
Yet the messages about LGBT have been very mixed over the years...
In 2019, "a passionate group of team members from across Target - from merchandising, marketing, digital and more - collaborated to bring this year’s collection of more than 90 items to stores and Target.com. The group worked closely with Target’s Pride Business Council to create an assortment that is inclusive. That includes clothing with extended sizes, as well as items perfect for every Pride celebration - from festivals and parades to pool parties and picnics." Target partners with organizations that support the LGBT+ community, including financial contributions and team member volunteerism, throughout the year. In celebration of Pride month, they contributed $100,000 to support GLSEN.
In 2019 team members volunteered at more than 30 Pride events across the US, including that year’s World Pride in New York City.
"The Target Wedding Registry advertising campaign is designed to reach all guests and represent the diversity of communities we serve. At the heart of our company are core values which include Target's long-standing commitment to create an environment where all of our team members and guests feel welcome, valued and respected. We believe our current marketing is consistent with this value."
For the corona times Pride, Target made a festive clip, and presented a collection featuring more than 90 products, including T-shirts, swimsuits, table decorations and rainbow-colored pet costumes that could be purchased online and in nearly 500 stores across the country, 100 more stores than in past years. One set was the "Show Your Stripes" capsule, also featured in the clip.
Supporting LGBT, or anti-LGBT?
When the controversial "Bathroom Discussion" started in 2016, Target was an early supporter - of the correct side. In April they announced that they would welcome transgender customers to any bathroom and fitting room that matched their gender identity.
This was followed by an immediate reaction from the usual suspects, who demanded a boycott because Target “opened the door for sexual predators to victimize women and children”. More than 1.4 million people signed the pledge, but Target did not back down. They invested $20 million to install single-occupancy toilets ánd saw their traffic and turnover decline for the first time in years.
The debate is whether there is a correlation between those two facts. CEO Brian Cornwell told Fortune magazine in May that the transgender bathroom policy has nothing to do with their financial wellbeing. Analysts say the real reason shoppers are abandoning Target is because they can find better prices and more convenience elsewhere, like Amazon en Walmart.
A Target spokesperson told TIME magazine that the campaign represents “the diversity of the communities we serve. The casting of this couple and their son is in line with previous marketing that Target has created including our Wedding Registry ad campaigns that have been running for the past several years.”
#TakePride was presented with much more visibility in subsequent years, with large sections in 350 stores.
For the 2019 holiday season, we saw "Thinking of you". Featuring Sam Smith's remake of gay icon Donna Summer's disco classic, "I Feel Love," the slew of characters includes a male couple arriving for the holidays, and also refers to a "chosen" family. Talented Mexican singer and actress Danna Paola lends a Latin vibe to the song for the Spanish spot.