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Christians take page from LGBT model to pressure companies

Drive-through customers wait in line at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Drive-through customers wait in line at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Happy holidays ... or is it merry Christmas?

A willingness to use the word "Christmas" in seasonal advertising is just one of many criteria the brand strategy firm Faith Driven Consumer employs as it rates companies for its Faith Equality Index. The group looks to see how well Christians are viewed "as an equally valued, welcomed and respected community in the rich rainbow of diversity."

According to FDC, 70 percent of faith-driven consumers are unhappy with their current brand relationships, which they may find disrespectful to their worldview. The firm's ratings — inspired by the success of similar efforts by LGBT groups and others — are designed to drive Christian consumers to companies that support their values.

"It's probably the most underserved and fluid market segment currently present," said Chris Stone, founder of FDC, which describes itself as a consumer advocacy organization. "It's rapidly emerging and economically powerful but still relatively immature."

According to a Big Crunch analysis, being high on the FDC list means that a company is less likely to rank high on other indexes, like the Corporate Equality Index issued by the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT advocacy group. But in terms of stock returns, Christian-friendly companies don't do any better or worse than the rest.

The most Christian-friendly brands in FDC's Faith Equality Index include companies like Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby and Cracker Barrel — all of which have attracted some degree of media controversy for firmly planting their flag in support of "traditional values."

There are a little over 300 brands ranked by both groups — and some belong to the same companies. On average, being in the top fourth of the Christian FEI index means a company has an CEI score about 60 percent below average, while a perfect score on the CEI puts a company about 5 percent below the FEI average.

Starbucks, which generated headlines this year when the design of its holiday cup failed to include classic Christmas imagery, is in the middle of the pack.

Stone said that he wasn't surprised the LGBT measure clashed with the FEI the two groups may have naturally opposing goals. Still, the FEI was specifically designed to echo the successful marketing efforts of groups like the HRC, he said.

"The LGBT market, in our opinion, has far and away done a better job," said Stone. "That market has been very active in applying advocacy pressure, and companies are responding to it because they see it's good for business."

Fighting over the brand-outreach pie

Stone said he doesn't see indexes like the CEI as competitors but that the idea is to encourage companies to keep faith-driven buyers in mind when they're deciding how to use their resources.

"We're knocking on the door asking if you will welcome us to your table you may either reslice the pie because you had another person show up, or you can make the pie bigger or you can say no you're not welcome to have any pie," he said. "We're specific to our community, so what you do for another community won't get any points from us."

But cutting that pie may be harder for companies than it seems. While Stone said a company should hypothetically be able to do well on both indexes (the FEI includes a "neutral" position on some controversial issues), in practice companies are measured against conflicting statements like the following:

  • Respect for, acknowledgement of, and compatibility with biblical teaching on sexuality, gender, marriage and family — either by supporting these positions publicly, financially or with in-kind resources equal, at minimum, to support given alternative positions, or remaining silent and neutral on these issues 10 points, FEI
  • Public commitment [to] ... LGBT-specific efforts, including at least three of the following: recruiting, supplier diversity, marketing or advertising, philanthropy or public support for LGBT equality under the law, and have internal guidelines that prohibit philanthropic giving to non-religious organizations with an explicit policy of discrimination against LGBT people. 10 points, CEI

And while the friction may not be as dramatic as that between the FEI and CEI, it's worth noting that our analysis found that other comparable indexes such as Black Enterprise's Top 40 list, DiversityInc's Top 50 list and the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility's Corporate Inclusion index also tended to correlate more with the CEI.

The average FEI score for the top companies on the Black Enterprise and DiversityInc lists was a few points lower than companies that didn't make those lists, and the top of the HACR list (85 or higher) was 3 points lower on the FEI than the rest of the list, indicating that high performance on those indexes doesn't translate to high performance on the faith-based index.

That's interesting considering, as Stone pointed out, black and Hispanic Christians are well represented in the group's constituency.

No difference between the groups

So does being a Christian-friendly company produce measurably better or worse performance over time? Not based on stock returns.

The Big Crunch looked at the stock return for each public company on the list over one year, two years and five years and found no pattern at all Christian-friendly companies perform about the same as everyone else. Sales data also showed similar distributions between the groups.

Of course, that doesn't mean that targeting specific groups won't have an impact for a specific company. We don't know how Chik-fil-A, for example, would have performed without the support of Christians, or how other companies may benefit or not if they shift their focuses.

"Diversity and inclusion are good for business," said Stone. "Ignoring a particular market segment is bad for business, whether you can quantify it today relative to faith-driven consumers or not."

Companies may be able to walk a middle ground (some, such as Sony, Target and Pepsi, have perfect CEI scores and above-average FEI scores). Or they may choose to pick a side and risk boycotts from irate consumers. But they won't be able to ignore it.

The HRC, Chick-fil-A, Cracker Barrel and Sony did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A spokeswoman for PepsiCo declined to comment.

"The Green Family believes in serving the Lord by sharing their blessings with consumers, employees and nonprofits that serve both national and local cause," a spokeswoman for Hobby Lobby wrote in an email.

Target said that the company did not formally participate in the FEI survey, but that "at Target all individuals enjoy a sense of belonging and level of support that allows us to do our best work."