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Lessons from Barilla: Keep Your Politics at Home

Companies, brands and leaders should stay away from making political commentary whenever possible--especially when not necessary.
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There are three topics that should always be avoided in a business setting: politics, sex and religion. When a public official or company leader starts talking about any one of the three, it usually ends badly. Case in point:

Barilla’s Chairman Guido Barilla, the great-grandson of the pasta company's founder, recently made statements on a radio show regarding gay marriage and adoption by gay couples.

Barilla’s statements were translated from his native Italian by Thomson Reuters as:

"I would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don't agree with them."

An alternate translation, with an important difference in emphasis by towlerod.com, was:

“I would never do an advert with a homosexual family… if the gays don’t like it they can go an eat another brand...”

Both sources agree that he went on to say, "I have no respect for adoption by gay families because this concerns a person who is not able to choose."

In response, gay rights group Equality Italia, in combination with an aggressive social media backlash, has called for a boycott of the Barilla brand. Barilla is one of the best-known pasta brands around the world and one of Italy's number one advertisers.

Guido Barilla chose Facebook as the place to release an apology, and the post has so far received almost 4,000 comments:

With reference to my statements yesterday to the press, I apologize if my words have offended some people.

For clarity I would like to point out that I have the deepest respect for all people, without distinction of any kind.

I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and freedom of expression. I also said, and repeat, that I have respect for marriages between people of the same sex.

Barilla in its advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is the symbol of hospitality and love for everyone.

Although I wrote a recent article about how companies shouldn’t apologize to their customers, this is not one of those occasions. This situation calls for a public apology--and possibly one of a greater magnitude than a just a Facebook post. However, it is admirable that Barilla made the apology on a forum that would allow customers to openly vent and respond. 

Does the Statement Serve the Brand? 

Consumers assign the words and actions of those that represent a company, whether it's the founder, CEO or other top executive, to the whole of the company. This fact is especially true when those words come from a person like Barilla whose company bears his name. Company leaders must always consider this fact and be careful when taking a public stance.

The real misstep here is that company leaders shouldn’t be taking stances on political issues at all, unless they somehow impact their company or their bottom line.

For example, Starbucks’ Chairman Howard Schultz recently made a statement asking handgun owners to leave their handguns at home. He was reacting to concerns from customers who were uncomfortable by the presence of armed patrons. This issue has a real likelihood to impact the revenues of Starbucks' stores, so a statement is justified in this situation.

In the case of Barilla, what he said only served to detract from the pasta maker’s brand and enrage their customers. His statements were in no way helpful to the company's position--it certainly didn’t bolster their brand--and they weren’t in reaction to a potential threat caused by a political decision. Better to have withheld an opinion or sidestepped a question that would only offend potential customers and provide no upside.

The good news is that consumers will forgive, but Barilla needs to take some aggressive steps towards correcting this public perception. The course of correction will require an open dialogue and actions from Barilla that reinforce the message of the apology. And it might potentially mean investing in some advertising that represents a different kind of family.

IMAGE: flickr/creative_tools
Last updated: Sep 27, 2013




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