Call it the season of the political CEO statement.
In July, Chick-fil-A took considerable heat based on anti-gay marriage statements from President Dan Cathy, heat that the company continues to feel even now. Reports of
from CEOs warning of firings depending on who wins the November presidential election
are becoming increasingly common.
Now, Nordstrom is taking its own gay marriage stand, the opposite of Chick-fil-A's. The company's president, Blake Nordstrom, announced in an email to employees the he and his executive brothers, Pete and
Erik, "felt the time was right to come out in support of this civil rights issue."
Given the passionate responses—negative and positive—to Chick-fil-A's overt statement on a social issue, should Nordstrom have jumped into the fray as it
did? Communication experts have mixed feelings about what this could mean for the company.
Branding expert Rob Frankel says there's a 66 percent chance of failure when a brand takes a stand on an issue, because there are three positions to take:
support, opposition, or neutrality.
"Unless there's a compelling issue actually demanding a political statement of position, there's really little advantage to be gained by proactively going
public," he says.
Robert Holland, owner of Holland Communication solutions, says he finds it puzzling that business leaders continue to feel a need to share their political
beliefs and personal values with employees or the public. Unless there was some inciting incident that called for Nordstrom to restate its "long-time
philosophy of inclusivity and equality for our customers and employees."
"I believe the Nordstroms are inviting controversy and conflict where there doesn't need to be any," he says. "The Nordstroms say they want employees to be
informed about the company's stand so they can answer customers' questions, but I can't imagine customers would have questions until now that the
Nordstroms have made it an issue."
Frankel does point out that Chick-fil-A didn't actually take a sales hit from its anti-gay marriage pronouncement. All the protests against the chain did
was bring more attention to the brand.
"If the action was supposed to hurt Chick-fil-A, it failed," he says.
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management says Nordstrom could be viewed as a trailblazer with its statement, and perhaps it has a responsibility
to blaze those trails.
"A highly respected company like Nordstrom has the clout to influence the opinion of those who think highly of it, and using that clout can have a positive
effect on an issue," he says.
It's unlikely that Nordstrom doesn't know its customer base, Bernstein says. And though the brothers' statement was for employees, they had to know whether
it would turn off customers, he suggests.
"Sure, they risk losing business from anti-gay potential customers, but given their customer demographics, the probable gain outweighs the potential loss,"
Katrina Olson, a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois' College of Media, points out that Nordstrom's statement is unlikely to do any harm with
employees, some of whom had lobbied the company to release a position statement.
The statement doesn't put Nordstrom too far out of line with other retailers, she points out.
"Target launched a campaign in July 2012 specifically targeting same-sex couples for their Wedding Gift Registry," Olson says. "In 2002, a Macy's registry
ad pictured a wedding cake with a same-sex couple topper."
Advice for brands
Olson does add that if Nordstrom's leaders believed their email would be seen only by employees, they should have known better.
"In this age of transparency, and given the ubiquity of social media, information is easily and rapidly shared with the masses," she says.
Like Frankel, Sean Williams of Communication Ammo says that any commentary about a touchy social issue can prove problematic for a brand. Sometimes it's
best to just rip off the Band-Aid, he suggests.
"I kind of like the idea of stating the position and just living with the consequences," he says.
But Frankel advises his clients to stick to business. Believing something doesn't require you to go public with that belief.
"Just because it may appear to be fashionable to lend one's enterprise to one or the other political cause doesn't mean it's right to do so," he says.
"This is the myth of 'cause marketing,' which I often caution clients to avoid like the plague."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.