Symbol of Support or Alienation

The explosion of red equal signs was a marketing coup for gay-marriage advocates and a marketing tactic for many brands that jumped on what appears to be a growing bandwagon of support.The red equal sign signifying support for gay marriage exploded onto social media just as the U.S. Supreme Court heard two major cases challenging a federal law and a California initiative banning same-sex unions. 

While the symbol, launched by the Human Rights Campaign, has been hailed as a brilliant tactic to rally supporters, sympathizers and politicians, questions have arisen about whether it was a smart PR move for many brands that also embraced the red equal sign.

The question seems pertinent because of the hub-bub over Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy's foray into the same issue, which polarized its customer base.

Matt Wilson, writing for ragan.com, says there has been widespread support for same-sex marriage from brands ranging from Bud Light to Kimpton Hotels and Martha Stewart Living. The difference, Wilson suggests, is that these and other brands assessed their core customer constituencies and concluded it made sense to take a public stand.

That was an easy call for brands that overtly cater to gay customers. But for others, it had the character of jumping on the bandwagon of rapidly shifting views on an issue that not that long ago was discussed in the context of moral and spiritual terms.

Even Chick-fil-A seemed to follow the trend, according to Wilson, as its California outlets offered free meal coupons to gay marriage supporters.

While same-sex marriage appears to be rushing toward broad acceptance in the United States, certainly by younger generations, there is still the possibility that brands will alienate a chunk of customers for their support or opposition of the issue.

Wilson explored that in his blog, quoting Starbucks Chairman Howard Shultz reply to a shareholder who complained about its early support of gay marriage. Shultz reportedly told the shareholder if he could find another company generating a 38 percent return, he should invest his money elsewhere. Not every brand has such an unassailable financial perch to defend its action.

In reality, the spate of brand support for gay marriage may be nothing more than cashing in on a trend in mainstream American culture, where one digital firm reported that positives responses outnumbered negative ones by 5 to 1. And, Wilson notes, using the symbol on social media is actually a form of passive support, not an activist position.

The red equal sign was a well-timed symbol to activate existing supporters and galvanize broader support. For many brands, posting the red equal sign was a way of saying "me, too" without a lot of risk.