Barilla Pasta: The Anti-General Mills

Following a summer in which we saw General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) go out of its way to be viewed as one of the most inclusive companies with its commercials featuring mixed race families and support of Gay Pride month and of same-sex marriage, we now get a primer on how to completely offend a large portion of your customer base.

Privately held Italian pasta maker Barilla saw its chairman Guido Barilla announce he would never feature homosexual families in his ads. "If they like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they don't like it then they will not eat it, and they will eat another brand. For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the fundamental values of the company."

The ensuing firestorm of protest included calls to take the chairman up on his offer and boycott the company. That had the chairman backpedaling a bit, but in the way a politician apologizes: saying you're sorry without really doing so. Barilla said he's sorry if anyone was offended or hurt because his words created a "misunderstanding" -- no, I think everyone clearly understood what you were saying -- and that in fact he respects gay marriage. 

But that's not the issue. It's not a question of Barilla opposing alternative lifestyles; he's free to feel that way and even to believe they're wrong. In fact, gay marriage is illegal in Italy. No, Barilla's problem was using his podium to speak on behalf of his company, not for himself.

That's why last year's boycott of Chick-fil-A was misguided and, ultimately, a failure. Its CEO had answered a question about his personal beliefs on gay marriage, and answered honestly, saying that he was opposed. While that upset many people, it was notable that he doesn't impose his beliefs on his company, and willingly hires and promotes gay employees; he keeps his personal beliefs and his business operations separate.

On the other hand, John Mackey at Whole Foods Market, which is famously inclusive and accepting of alternative lifestyles, angered quite a few people when he described Obamacare as socialist because it appeared representative of company policy. That's what happened at Papa John's Pizza, too, when its CEO also criticized the health care reform law.

If you're going to apologize for misspeaking, at least make it seem as though you truly are sorry. Don't come off sounding as tone-deaf as BP ex-CEO Tony Hayward's cringe-worthy mea culpa following the Gulf oil spill when he said, "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives. There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I want my life back." Said just before you go yachting. As thousands of fisherman are left without any livelihood.

Or Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO, who was quoted a few years ago -- but whose quotes only caught traction earlier this year -- saying A&F essentially didn't want ugly, uncool kids shopping at its stores. His resulting non-apology said, "I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense." Again, it's not misinterpretation; you were just caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Whereas General Mills generated tons of generally positive free advertising with its position (though there were some calls for a boycott), Barilla caused lots of ink to be spilled bashing it, making clear that companies politicizing their business are inviting polarizing reactions. "Any publicity is good publicity" may be an old saying, but that doesn't mean there aren't alternative ways to broadcast your beliefs, particularly if your customers can vote with their wallets.

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