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Leadership

When Politics And Branding Don't Mix: The Chipotle Boy Scouts Burrito Blowup

How companies should navigate cause marketing when it's becoming ever-trickier to avoid sticky situations.

It’s a no-brainer: A brand sponsors a nonprofit organization known for its good works so it can score some high citizenship points from current and potential customers. Unfortunately, in today’s volatile political climate, the proven pros of cause marketing can quickly turn into one big mess.

Most recently, Chipotle pulled its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts of America Scout-A-Rama event in Utah, the biggest fundraising event of the year for the BSA’s Great Salt Lake Council. Why? Because the Boy Scouts still don’t officially allow participation by anyone who’s LGBT.

It’s not that Chipotle couldn’t see this coming. The Boy Scouts controversy has been looming large this year, especially after the organization considered removing the ban and then delayed making an actual decision on the matter. When Chipotle was first criticized for their sponsorship, a spokesman responded by saying, "In Salt Lake, the Scouting institution is very strong, and it is our chance to connect with customers in that community."

Translation: "It doesn’t matter what a group believes as long as we might make a potential buck out of this."

This only turned up the public heat on Chipotle as gay activists pointed out that the company was actually violating its own internal non-discriminatory policy. Chipotle finally did the inevitable and pulled its funding of the event, responding to all social media comments with this blanket statement: "We cancelled our participation in this event, not just due to our policy, but because it's the right thing to do." 

Translation: "We had to do this, so let’s pretend we have integrity."

Cause marketing is more and more of a popular tactic for brands; that’s because it's widely perceived to be a win-win. A study done in 2011 showed that 37% of all people said that they purchased a product because it was associated with a cause, 75% purchased a brand because of its cause marketing, and 61% were willing to try a new brand if it was associated with a cause. Those kinds of statistics are why corporate cause-marketing is expected to top $1.8 billion this year.

Unfortunately, many golden clouds have a dark lining; in this case, cause marketing is also capable of doing heavy-duty damage to a brand, should it align itself with the wrong movement or non-profit. With the omnipresent social media watching every move a company makes these days, it doesn’t take long for the hammer of activist disapproval to come down hard if there’s a politically incorrect (or just plain incorrect) aspect of a partnership to be uncovered.

Is it beyond hope for a company to think it can control its perception? The answer, according to Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, authors of the new book, Can’t Buy Me Like, is yes: "In the relationship era, brands can no longer project the image of their choosing." Scary thought, and, hopefully, not a completely valid one. For instance, Chipotle could have easily seen this publicity train wreck coming, if they had chosen to, and reacted much more smartly to the situation.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines to consider before partnering up with a non-profit:

  • Know a non-profit’s weaknesses before the public does.
  • Activists score points when they investigate a charity or other non-profit group more thoroughly than does a business supporting the group in question. Do your homework. There’s no excuse for overlooking a glaring problem spot or letting someone else find it after you’ve done the deal.
  • Be in front of a controversy instead of behind it.
  • When storm clouds gathered over the Chipotle-Boy Scout alliance, the right corporate response was not, "Well, this helps us sell more burritos in Utah." It should have been either, "This was a mistake by our marketing department," or, at the very least, "We are examining the situation," followed by swift, decisive action. The longer you leave your brand in the hot seat, the more chance it has of being as flame-broiled as Chipotle’s meat.
  • When all else fails, admit a mistake.
  • People can deal with a company admitting they screwed up; what they dislike is a company pretending a mistake never happened. That just reinforces their worst suspicions about corporations. An honest "We’re sorry" will always take a brand much further than stonewalling and hypocritical statements of virtue.

Finally, there is an alternative way for brands to deal with these kinds of hot-button topics—and that’s simply to play both sides against the middle. A smaller restaurant chain, Winger’s Roadhouse Grill, jumped in to take Chipotle’s place as a sponsor of the Boy Scouts event. And, to avoid criticism from the gay community, it simultaneously announced it was helping to fund The Utah Pride Center’s Queer Prom, an annual event for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youths and their supporters.

No word yet on whether both sides love Winger’s for this—or hate them!

[Image: Flickr user Knar Bedian]