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Why Target Has Pride Month Backlash and Walmart Doesn't
When brand worldview collides with retail footprint.
On Tuesday, May 23rd, Target announced it was pulling some LGBTQ merchandise from stores following conservative customer backlash and threats made to employees. Target then moved Pride Month merchandise from the front of the stores to the back, causing backlash from liberal customers. Within 72 hours, the entire country took a dim view of Target.
Meanwhile, on May 31st, Walmart announced it would keep its Pride Month merchandise unchanged. The reaction to Walmart’s announcement? Crickets chirping. No threats. No backlash. Nothing. How is this possible? After all, isn’t Walmart a conservative brand?
The answer lies in how Walmart and Target align their brands with their markets from a worldview perspective - as liberal or conservative. Target has the wrong market for its brand based on retail location. This misalignment creates backlash during Pride Month and sustained friction that affects business efficiency, profitability, and growth. Walmart is the opposite. Walmart fuels growth by clearly aligning its brand, products, and market. Both offer clear examples of how aligning with market worldview is essential for maximizing business results.
Let’s start with the brands themselves. Target was founded by the Dalton family in Minneapolis, a liberal family from a liberal city. Target’s liberal roots have been reflected in its brand throughout history, acting as a filter for design, product selection, communications, and more.
Target’s Chief Creative Officer, Todd Waterbury, says on the website: “ . . . we see the space to go somewhere new and create something better. What began as a radical declaration—Design for All—has become an integral part of Target’s brand.” That’s a very future-oriented, progressive brand statement. Conservative customers generally want nothing to do with “radical declarations” or be transported “somewhere new.”
That doesn’t mean that conservative customers don’t shop at Target - it just means that it will feel less of a fit for them. A conservative customer will come to Target for its functional value, not its brand value, which reflects a sub-optimal relationship. In other words, a conservative customer will solve a problem with Target rather than being drawn into it. This works only when there are few competitive choices, and even then, there is some low level of reluctance.
On the other hand, Walmart grew up in small towns in more rural areas, reflecting the desires of its founder, Sam Walton, and his wife, Helen. They both grew up in small towns and wanted to raise their family in the same environment. It’s the roots of how Walmart grew into an enormously successful conservative brand.
Walmart certainly has liberal shoppers, but it just won’t feel as good a fit for them. In this case, like Target, liberal customers will find functional value when they walk into the store and most likely do not have other equally convenient choices.
You can argue that the two businesses are fierce rivals, but are they? The difference in founder and brand worldview means they will attract people from two different worldview markets, each of about equal size and spending power. From a brand perspective, they are aligning with different customers.
So why is Target the ire of both groups and Walmart is not? It’s all about the retail footprint that resulted from their expansion strategy.
Look at the two retail footprints of Target and Walmart below, derived from voting data and retail addresses. Target’s retail footprint actually skews conservative, while Walmart’s footprint skews even more conservative. Target’s retail footprint is misaligned with its brand worldview as liberal.
This means that the Target brand effectively falls flat on most of its customers, creating an environment where Target has to react to any controversy from the right, or they risk losing too many sales. A problem with conservative customers is a big problem for Target. It also means that Target is more prominent among conservative shoppers than it should be, making it more susceptible to backlash when company statements, products, or endorsements counter customer views.
Contrast this situation with that of Walmart. In their case, their brand aligns well with most of their customers, which helps them build brand equity. When most shoppers are conservative within a conservative store, it feels more like home. This allows Walmart to operate more as a trusted brand, reducing the likelihood of a backlash from conservative customers, even when those customers see products that don’t reflect their values. Conservative customers give Walmart a pass, but not Target.
So why does Target have a misaligned retail footprint? The short answer is they ignored a critical underlying current in American markets while they expanded.
Target grew its business during the same period when the country sorted itself along liberal and conservative lines. As Alan Abramowitz points out in his book, The Disappearing Center, the country’s “middle” started shrinking in the 1950s and is effectively gone today.
When Target and Walmart grew their retail footprints since the 1950s, they focused on community attributes that didn’t include worldview as liberal or conservative because it wasn’t on anyone’s mind. They most likely used market research tools, such as those offered by Claritas and Acxiom, which analyze income, population density, life stage, proximity to competitors, and other attributes to identify new locations. These research tools generally miss worldview because worldview sorting accelerated over the past twenty years. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
So when Target planned its locations, it looked more at demographics and where there was a competitive opportunity, resulting in the wrong footprint for its brand. Using similar expansion methods, Walmart got the right footprint because it was simply the natural fit for their brand’s vision.
Target’s big box format also likely pushed them into areas where real estate was more affordable, where more conservative customers live - in more outer suburban, exurban, and rural areas. All of this resulted in Target’s brand being put on a collision course with most of its customers.
Certainly, there are Target locations in urban centers, such as Boston, where there are a lot of liberal customers. That’s a perfect fit. Yet note that the nearest Walmart is some forty minutes away in Quincy. Walmart’s customers are mostly not in Boston and their expansion around smaller towns aligned naturally with their more conservative brand. There was no pull on Walmart to enter large urban environments from the start.
You can argue that big box stores require more lower-cost real estate to succeed nationally, which means more outer suburban and rural areas, which skew conservative. But there are exceptions proving this isn’t necessarily the case. Take IKEA, for example, and compare its retail footprint to that of Target below. You can see clearly that IKEA has a footprint that skews very liberal, and yet they have an even larger format store than Target.
IKEA sells modern home furnishings that appeal more to liberal urban modernist customers. Their brand, products, and retail footprint all align well. So it is possible to have a larger format store in or near more densely populated liberal environments.
So Target faces tough choices to avoid getting caught up in the news for the foreseeable future. They must fix one of two big things: their retail footprint or their brand.
Target could migrate retail locations toward more liberal communities to shift the customer skew in favor of their brand. This would not only help them avoid negative press but also improve business performance because more customers would have a stronger affinity with their business, leading to revenue growth. More customers around their stores will feel pulled into their environment whether or not there is clear competition around the corner, especially if it’s Walmart. They can focus more on the customer worldview and less on the competitive threat.
The other option for Target is to shift the brand to align better with its existing retail footprint. This doesn’t mean Target needs to become a conservative brand. They could focus on developing their brand to appeal to both groups. This can be accomplished in a few different ways, including tapping into American customer values both groups share, rooted in American individualism. The problem with this strategy is that it will conflict with Target’s culture, which is no small matter.
Given a choice between the two options - shifting footprint or brand - changing the footprint is probably the better answer. It won’t require everyone at Target headquarters to see the world differently and overtly acknowledge that they must appeal more to conservative customers. After all these years of developing a business that big, it would be incredibly disruptive to their culture. Instead, they could declare themselves the progressive option in contrast to Walmart and focus on primarily serving liberal customers. This would allow them to take more significant risks with a progressive brand rather than react whenever someone in the conservative media gets mad.
This may seem like a problem reserved for only the largest businesses, but there is an essential lesson here for everyone. If you align what you stand for - your brand - with your products and location from a worldview perspective, you will oil the machinery of your business to grow. It’s a strategic decision that fuels lower customer acquisition costs and increased customer value. It just takes putting all the elements on the table and some organizational self-awareness.
What’s more, if you operate a smaller business, you can make these adjustments far easier than larger competitors, giving you a competitive edge. It’s possibly the fastest path to zig when a larger competitor zags.