History is replete with examples of consumer-facing companies that shot themselves in the foot with tone-deaf marketing or merchandising. Still, as blunders go, it would be hard to imagine worse debacles than the recent decisions by Target and Budweiser. These two otherwise sober companies mangled their brands and ended up causing more, not less, grief for the groups they were trying to support.
Should they have tried to market and grow their businesses by approaching these opportunities? Perhaps yes. Should they have done it in the way they approached it? Definitely not. More on that in a minute.
Target ended up with two black eyes for its decision to place certain Pride-themed product displays at the front of its stores selling clothing and books aimed at LGBTQ shoppers. Budweiser made an even bigger misstep within their iconic Bud Light brand.
Few companies should know their customer base better than Target and Budweiser. Despite all that research firepower, the companies alienated a vast swath of their constituencies. The controversial campaigns were met with an avalanche of videos. In Budweiser’s case, some showed people crushing, shooting, and otherwise disparaging the best-selling beer in America and the source of nearly 10% of Anheuser-Busch’s annual revenue.
Other examples from previous years include the Indianapolis Children's Museum, which came under fire in 2022 for selling something called a Juneteenth watermelon salad in its cafe, Juneteenth being the day set aside to commemorate the day all enslaved people across the U.S. finally became free.
As someone who has been a student of retail consumer behavior for nearly 30 years, I have no good answer for the obvious question: What were these decision-makers, executives, and marketers thinking? Clearly, they weren’t because if they had been paying attention, someone would have pointed out that there is no profit in making a huge misstep.
In 2017, four years after the Boston Marathon was marred by a deadly bombing that killed three and wounded more than 250 runners, Adidas sent an email to runners that began, “Congrats, you survived!”
The bottom line? There are no substitutes for the simple, basic business rule: Know your customer. If you don’t know them…ask. Then, give them what they want.