In the wake of the Parkland shooting, many companies are trying to navigate incredible pressure from consumers. Delta cut the group travel discount it offered the organization's members. In reaction, the Georgia legislature punished the Atlanta-based company by leaving in place an airline fuel tax originally planned to end that cost the carrier $40 million a year. And then yesterday came the news that only 13 NRA members had ever used the discount, according to the Washington Post. That was one expensive promotion.
No wonder brands scramble to find some safe ground between consumer demands and business realities. Throw in politics and you can damage your company with a single statement or photo op when you thought you were doing the right thing.
The current debate over guns and the NRA -- and dueling boycotts -- is an example of an extreme, but the issue arises for businesses time and again, particularly the more broadly they market. Try to reach everyone and you can rile large portions of your customers, no matter what position you take on public issues.
Pulling away from the NRA recently struck many as the proper thing to do. In a letter to company employees, Delta CEO Ed Bastian described the decision as an intent "to remain neutral," adding, "[o]ur decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale. We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature." The letter than said that "we are supporters of the 2nd Amendment, just as we embrace the entire Constitution of the United States."
If Delta prizes neutrality, why in all that is holy and airborne did it align itself with a group and topic that had proven politically divisive for decades? To anyone that sees themselves on the NRA's side, that isn't maintaining neutrality. It comes across like a politician caught on what appears to be the wrong side of a public issue. How many office holders who have long taken NRA contributions and have expressed their support for individual gun ownership and are now trying to find safe ground? No office holder outside of a "safe" district wants to be branded as someone "supporting the murder of students," whether or not that tag is not true.
Ty Montague, founder of consultancy firm Co:, points to the difference between reaction and leadership. "Responding to consumer pressure, which I think many of these companies are doing, is a typically good response but ultimately it's not leadership," he said in an interview. "There was a time when it was sufficient for a company to maximize shareholder value, so they would take whatever actions were necessary to do that. Smart companies are beginning to sense that they have a large societal role to play and some are beginning to lead."
The difference is "between doing what you think will make you the most money in the short term and doing the things because you believe in it and you'd never change your view on it," Montague said. The big problem happens when a company changes its apparent position and values -- not the ones it necessarily talks about at times, but the ones it supports through action.
Part of the problem is wanting to have it all: love from every consumer and an ever-growing bundle of revenue and profits. Vista Outdoor is a prime example. This holding company owns some well-known brands, like CamelBak watering systems, Camp Chef stoves, and Jimmy Styks paddle boards. It also has Bushnell (optics including riflescopes), Cascade Cartridge (ammo), and Federal Premium (more ammo).
That makes it hard for Vista to take a stand against guns and ammunition. Because it hasn't, outdoor products cooperative chains REI in the U.S. and Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada have said they would end future purchases of any products from any company owned by Vista. Coops heard from their members in droves. No one in such a business wants to anger, as a colleague who fits this description put it, "Brooklyn moms" who set their kids up with CamelBaks.
Vista is between a rock and a hard place, as it has customers across the political divide on the gun issue. When you try to be all things to all people, there is nowhere to go but behind political cross-hairs.
There are also the problems companies will have because of past decisions. Berkshire Bank was listed as part of a syndicate of banks that lent to arms manufacturer Sig Sauer. Berkshire also appeared on the lists of banks that did business with the NRA (like with co-branded credit cards) or with gun manufacturers. Now it's being hailed by some as having "cut ties" with Sig Sauer last week.
And yet, in a statement provided to left-leaning political website ThinkProgress, Berkshire Bank Senior Vice President and Marketing Officer Elizabeth Mach said: "At one time, Berkshire Bank was a participating lender in a syndicate of banks that had a lending relationship with Sig Sauer. However, as of 18 months ago we are no longer part of this lending group and we have no further lending relationship with Sig Sauer."
A year and a half after ending a relationship, they have to mention the separation because the previous association colored their image to many. And people act as though it just happened because, hey, that's politics.
Granted, companies do many different things over time. However, they should start looking ahead -- and inward. If you own or run a company, decide what it should be. Think broadly and deeply, looking at all the controversies that are foreseeable. Have clear principles that can guide you in any decision and realize that you may not keep all your customers.
"If you have genuine beliefs that are strongly held, there are going to be people who like you and people who don't like you," Montague said. But when they do like you and trust your positions, "customers are incredibly loyal." They view such companies as more modern and the businesses enjoy greater employee satisfaction and retention as well as greater customer loyalty.
Plus, if haters are gonna hate, at least it won't suddenly come as a surprise to you.