Friday, October 1, 2010

Politicizing Lake Wobegon: The New Target Corporation Mistake?

Gay/lesbian activists and Democrats were outraged by Target Corporation’s political contributions to Minnesota Forward. Now Republicans may have their parallel beef with Garrison Keillor and his use of Lake Wobegon to endorse Tarryl Clark. Both actions demonstrate the stupidity of businesses either using or threatening their marketing brand when entering partisan politics.

First, there are important political differences between what Target and Keillor did. Target is a corporation that was otherwise barred from make independent political expenditures prior to the Citizens United Decision. Garrison Keillor is an individual who always had a right to make political statements and engage in partisan politics. However, after distinguishing Target from Keillor as that of corporation to individual, the parallels outweigh the differences.

Target’s basic mistake was that contributions to Minnesota Forward on behalf of conservative and anti-gay/lesbian rights Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer threatened a marketing brand and image that the company had sought to nurture for years. I wrote about this issue in an earlier blog and will not dwell on this here. But in entering partisan politics it damaged its image as the progressive socially responsible business it had sought to cultivate.

Second, in entering partisan politics it realized that any business–especially a retail one–that does this faces the wrath of perhaps half of its customers. I always thought the natural deterrent to corporate political activity was fear of alienating customers. What we learned from target is how partisan activity fuses with marketing and brand imaging. Engage in partisan activity and you threaten your marketing image. Keillor’s invocation of Lake Wobegon to attack Michelle Bachmann and endorse Tarryl Clark did the same thing.

Lake Wobegon has become Keillor’s and perhaps Minnesota Public Radio’s brand. The career and corporate existence of the two respectively have been built around Prairie Home Companion. For three decades. They have sold tons of books, built a catalog sales, and spun a business around tales from Lake Wobegon. Keillor had his own political views which were clearly Democratic Party leaning, but he kept them separate from his Lake Wobegon brand...until now.

Invoking Lake Wobegon in a partisan race poses the same threats to Keillor and MPR as did Target’s political expenditures. There will be many outraged by Keillor’s use of this brand and soon there will be calls to boycott him, his show, and perhaps MPR. Yes, many other writers and stars from Hollywood have gotten involved in partisan politics but most are smart enough not to invoke their core brand when doing it. Or it they do engage in partisan politics they understand how it affects their brand and they move ahead and act. Think of a Richard Gere as an example.

But Keillor’s endorsement does threaten his core brand. Moreover, it is not clear it will help Clark for two reasons. First, instead of Bachmann becoming the topic for debate it will be Keillor and there may be a backlash against Clark. This is what happened with Target when it and not Emmer became the focus of debate and the expenditure backlashed against him. See the same here in terms of how it leads to even more money from the GOP for Bachmann.

Second, for years Republicans have successfully run a cultural war against Democrats by arguing that decadent Hollywood was supporting their opponents. Republicans can now do this with Keillor. It will be Bachmann versus Keillor, MPR, and the entertainment industry. Bachmann most over this, it fits perfectly into her script.

Last thought: In a race where millions have already been spent and Clark is far behind, this endorsement may be a desperate distraction. Millions more of Democrat dollars will be drawn into this race and out of ones that need the money and the real issues will not be debated but get lost the controversy over the endorsement.

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