Ford's error: not standing firm in boycott response

Ford's marketing strategy is back in the news again after a conservative coalition renewed its boycott of the automaker for advertising in gay publications.

Ford's marketing strategy is back in the news again after a conservative coalition renewed its boycott of the automaker for advertising in gay publications.

The American Family Association claims that the advertising dollars are being spent to promote gay political causes like the gay marriage movement. It also argues that Ford reneged on a promise to stop advertising in these outlets.

No company wants to be in the media glare of a boycott. While boycotts have varying degrees of success in impacting a company's bottom line, they put a company on the defensive and divert resources that should be used to promote its products and reputation.

That's particularly true of Ford, which because it has cut jobs and shuttered plants this year owing to lackluster sales, cannot afford to take its eye off its business objectives.

But Ford made a critical mistake early on: The automaker wavered on how to handle the American Family Association's campaign.

Instead of standing firm all along, the company first pulled its ads from gay publications and then reinstated them. It didn't have a consistent message that supported its actions; Ford first claimed the decision to pull ads was part of a marketing strategy - it then changed its mind because of its "tradition of treating all with respect."

Ford is a company that is pulled in two directions. On one hand, its most profitable product is the F150 pickup truck, and the largest market for pickup trucks is conservative Texas. On the other hand, Ford has a history of supporting gay causes.

There is a larger brand message that ties those two pieces together and defines the company, though it won't necessarily please everyone. In deciding how to approach a boycott, Ford - and indeed all companies - must determine what it is it stands for and adjust its business decisions accordingly.

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