Hallmark Betrays Brand Values and Learns How to Anger Everybody


I would love to know what the conversations are like at Hallmark HQ right now.

I can only imagine that they aren’t particularly pleasant — or positive — considering the PR crisis the company is dealing with at the moment.

For those who haven’t heard, they’re smack in the middle of a scandal over a commercial that aired on the Hallmark TV channel. The ad, from wedding-planning company Zola, featured a lesbian couple kissing.

Since it first aired, the company has starred in a comedy of errors, an industry case study on how a company can damage itself, tarnish brand value and cause major financial and reputational damage with a single campaign (remember Pepsi’s now-infamous Kylie Jenner ad?Opens a new window ).

Soon after initial airing, the Hallmark Channel pulled the Zola ad following complaints from conservative activist group One Million Moms, which sent a petition with some 40,000 signatures asking the commercial be removed — and Hallmark obliged.

The internet did not take kindly to that decision, and the ensuing firestorm, fueled of course by social media — was epic.

There have been calls far and wide, including from gay-advocary group Glaad, for advertisers to break ties with Hallmark. Indeed, the company has been savaged by media and general audiences alike.

Although Hallmark has since reinstated the ad and publicly apologized, serious damage to the brand image has been done.

So what’s the lesson here?

On brand value, be all in

Corporations trying to leverage social movements, causes and trends is nothing new. This approach to marketing has become common as brands across industries launch socially-responsible marketing campaigns.

Here’s the thing. Marketers have seen the success of campaigns that highlight and showcase brand activism — for example, Nike’s controversial 2018 “Just Do It” campaignOpens a new window that starred controversial ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — and tried to replicate that formula.

It’s understandable. Marketers want to capture the growing number of consumers whose buying decisions are significantly belief-driven.Opens a new window  Marketing firm Edelman released a report last year in which it found that an organization’s social or political stance significantly impacts purchasing decisions by a full 64% of global consumers.

My problem is that too many companies are now pushing their brand activism and being vocal about their brand purpose while not actually backing it up in a real-world business context — or sometimes even betraying those very same values.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my issues with this exact problem during Pride month, when countless brands rainbow-washed their marketing, communications and even products. (If you’ve never heard of rainbow-washing, read thisOpens a new window ).

Consumers, though, thankfully are becoming aware of this corporate co-opting tendency and, as such, are increasingly critical of companies that ‘walk the walk’ but don’t ‘talk the talk.’ We saw the repercussions when the NBA sacrificed its supposed morals, rooted in social and political activism, to please Chinese sponsorsOpens a new window .

Hallmark’s situation is eerily similar. As Stephen Lovegrove writes for Business InsiderOpens a new window , Hallmark was disloyal to its own values, for which it should have stood by during the swirl of controversy. Lovegrove argues that “the decision to pull the ad is wishy-washy because it goes against what they’ve demonstrated in the past…The company has been sending quiet messages of equality for years, including same-sex relationship-themed greeting cards and a commercial where a dad accepts his son coming out to him the night of prom.”

Authenticity and transparency in marketing has become a growing theme in the industry.

Digital audiences, especially on social media, want the brands they buy from and engage with online to be authentic. That ever-evolving relationship between enterprise and individual means that consumers are now able easily to identify brands that are only trying to profit through cause-based marketing.

Considering that 57% of consumers are willing to boycott brands that don’t share their values, companies need to be prepared to risk the fallout from making their opinion known.

So if you don’t stand behind that opinion, what happens when you get called out for it?

Ask Hallmark.