Can I Sell You a Side Order of Righteousness?

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Some people are thrilled by taking extraordinary risks, but most of us prefer less risk.

Strangely, some executives have flipped that idea around by piling on more risk to ones they already have. Economic uncertainty, rabid competition, and now, “My prospective customers might not like my personal politics or social biases.” Bring ’em on!

I can’t explain this phenomenon, other than perhaps public controversy brings the same invigorating jolt of adrenaline as bungee jumping or riding a motorcycle through quarter-mile long hoops of fire. Regardless, some business leaders have political, religious, or social cards to play, and they expect others to join them. Sure, everyone has a passionate opinion about something, but is it right or fair to embed such beliefs into a business plan? Don’t their investors, creditors, suppliers, employees and customers have financial skin in the game?

Move to the left, or move to the right. Anyone for joining the enigmatic center? Ben & Jerry’s ice cream proudly supported the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and formulated a new flavor, Apple-y Ever After, to market in the UK in support of gay marriage. Even the beloved Muppets have been accused of having a social axe to grind.

On the other side, Chick-fil-a’s CEO Dan Cathy made news last month for his statements against the same marriage rights that Ben & Jerry’s ardently supports. “. . . as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us,” he told The Baptist Press in an article, Guilty as Charged, Cathy says of Chick-fil-A’s stand on biblical & family values.

When Mr. Cathy finishes his dinner, it’s doubtful that he puts on a pair of Birkenstocks and heads to his local Ben & Jerry’s in Atlanta for an ice cream dessert. What happened to Peter Drucker’s succinct distillation that “the primary purpose of a business is to have a customer”? For certain consumers, the conflation of business and political or religious beliefs makes buying experiences decidedly cruddy. “I don’t know what to do about it. I mean, I guess I can go through the drive-through where no one will see me,” The Washington Post quoted one woman as saying. Can’t we just simply like chicken or ice cream, and leave it at that?

In my home state of Virginia, a start up bakery, Crumb and Get It, made news this month for refusing to host the Biden entourage during a campaign stop in Danville. The reason? Opposition to President Obama’s economic policies. But another local business, the River City Grill, gladly snapped up the opportunity to host the Veep along with the media. No misgivings. “If you want to throw some Libertarians in there, too, they can feel free to stop in as well,” the owner said. One man gathers what another man spills. Money is still green, no matter whether the person spending it is red or blue. Ask any hotelier in Tampa or Charlotte.

“We’ve got the Papa John’s pizza guys weighing in on the health-care debate, while the burger slingers out West at In-N-Out can’t serve up a cheeseburger without a Bible verse,” Petula Dvorak wrote in a column, Now Featuring filet o’ fracas (The Washington Post, August 15, 2012), “Somehow, it is funny that a place where a single slice of The Meats pizza can run you 400 calories, 19 grams of fat and 1,100 milligrams of sodium decides to weigh in on the health-care debate. Sort of like the Medellin drug cartel taking a stand on border patrol.”

Too absurd. People notice things. Should Enterprise Risk Managers add hypocrisy risk to their portfolios? This is where we might be heading, though that risk pales in comparison to Customer Alienation Risk. Which is why Jon, a former sales colleague, once told me, “Andy, if my prospects have six toes and green skin, then heck! I’m going to ask to join their club!” Well said, and a healthy outlook if you’ve got a quarterly number to make.

An article in The Economist, Speak Low if You Speak God (August 4, 2012), displays a photo of protestors in front of a Chick-fil-a outlet. One holds a sign reading “Stop waffling, support equality.” Most corporate marketers would agree that their vision for raving crowds doesn’t include this image. The magazine shares four tips for avoiding Customer Alienation Risk:

1) “Don’t discuss religion in public. Few people will buy your margarine just because you are Zoroastrian. Plenty may shun it if you loudly espouse dogma they find disagreeable. This tip applies doubly to global firms, which must serve customers of every faith and none.

2) If you must discuss religion in public, keep it bland and woolly.

3) Remember that something which seems trivial to you may be weighty to others.

4) Ride out brouhahas over which you have no control.”

I’ll add my own:

5) Remember, a customer who wants to spend money for your product or service—and who has the money to spend—should always feel completely happy doing so, and should never be made to feel differently.

2 COMMENTS

  1. You touch on a very important subject for me. I’m an atheist, but I also have lots of money to spend. I’ll recount two stories, one personal and one not.

    I was eating dinner with my wife in a restaurant in South Bend. The background music consisted of religious Christmas carols. I asked the waiter whether playing such music meant that the restaurant didn’t want non-Christian customers. He asked me if I were Jewish and wouldn’t believe me when I told him that I wasn’t. I doubt that the Christian music would bring in many customers but might offend non-Christians like me.

    The second instance was a commercial on television that was advertising a food product by using nostalgia and a the theme of returning to a simpler past. The final few seconds of the commercial used a well-known Christian, Protestant hymn when many other traditional non-religious songs would have served the same purpose. This commercial was clearly aimed at a Protestant audience at a time when demographics reveal that Protestants will become a minority within the next year.

    I concur with your point that offending any group of customers is usually not a good idea. Has any research been done on this question? I would suspect that strengthening bonds with one group is less valuable for a company when this action offends and weakens the bonds with another group.

  2. Bob: I have always found selling organizations refreshingly non-denominational, mainly for the reason you cited: offending any group of customers is usually not a good idea. So it has surprised me lately to see religious and polarizing social themes injected into business discussions.

    When I searched on “religion and sales,” I mainly found links to the retailer True Religion, along with data about their sales.

    This suggests a paucity of research. Perhaps, a valuable survey opportunity! I think many people would benefit from having a clearer understanding of the risks that occur when the religious and social beliefs of corporate officers become enmeshed with corporate brands and customer experiences.

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