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The fixation on Target

See if you can pick out the difference here. Target gives a $100,000 check to the pro-business group MN Forward. Best Buy also gives MN Forward $100,000. The group then turns around and uses that money to help buy ads supporting Republican Tom Emmer, who's running for Minnesota governor -- except it's Target that's getting most of the criticism for supporting Emmer, who opposes gay marriage. What's going on?

Target is masterful at branding, but that meticulousness has made it more vulnerable in this controversy. Consumers have such a strong sense of what they'll get when they shop at Target -- edgy design, value, a big box store that's not Wal-Mart -- that any departure from that picture is going to create a stronger backlash than otherwise.

When I talked with MoveOn.org's Ilyse Hogue yesterday, she was pretty upfront that Target is getting treated differently. The reason, she said, is that MoveOn members were taken aback when they learned about Target's political contributions. Liberal shoppers somehow think Target shares their values, and that perception created an attachment to Target's brand. Best Buy just doesn't touch that nerve.

In 2008, Jennifer Reingold wrote a piece in Fortune profiling Target, which gave her a rare look at the company's executive suite. Gregg Steinhafel, the current chief executive, was on the cusp of taking over from Robert Ulrich, who ran the company for 14 years. Here's a scene from that story that should tell you how seriously Target takes its branding:

During a recent interview in his tidy, light-filled office at Target's Minneapolis headquarters, Steinhafel's Midwestern reserve fluctuates between polite and downright uncomfortable. But then I cross the line. The offense: asking how Steinhafel, 53, who will take over as CEO from Ulrich on May 1, differs from his longtime mentor. The room grows silent. His mouth gets thin. Arms cross. "This isn't about me," he says. Long, awkward pause. "We're all a little bit nervous when we are talking too much about [ourselves]," he allows, finally. "It should all be about the brand."

In the wake of Target's donation to MN Forward, the company's been asked to talk a lot about itself. So far, it's not saying much.

By Jia Lynn Yang  |  August 19, 2010; 5:31 PM ET
Categories:  Best Buy , Campaign finance , Target  
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Comments

I didn't know about Best Buy. I'll boycott them too. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: dorklord | August 19, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Single issue politics vs. Candidates that take issues on a number of positions = no win situations. Maybe Target can encourage Emmer to be open to civil union equality, while still opposing opening up his religion's concept of marriage to homosexuals. $100,000 has to be worth something!

This is why we all business owners should be independents...contribute on issues, not people.

Posted by: staticvars | August 20, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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