Three Lessons for Brands from Ellie Goulding’s Thanksgiving Day Stand Against the Salvation Army

Thanksgiving Day means more than eating Turkey and watching football. For British musician Ellie Goulding, Thanksgiving has become a time for social activism, at the expense of the NFL and Salvation Army.  

Ellie Goulding Knocks over a Red Kettle

Goulding is scheduled to perform in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills game. The show marks the official start of the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. For the past 22 years, musicians ranging from Eric Church to Destiny’s Child have appeared on the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show, befitting the particularly close relationship between the Dallas Cowboys (who play each year on Thanksgiving) and the Salvation Army.

At first Goulding seemed like the perfect choice for the NFL and the Salvation Army. Her millennial-friendly electronic pop is interesting without being risky, and she is a noted philanthropist. Indeed, on November 7, the Salvation Army issued a press release gushing about her upcoming performance, which quoted Goulding as follows:

I am honored to perform at the Dallas Cowboys halftime show and kick off The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. With so many people in need, I believe it’s our duty to help, and I encourage everyone to donate to The Salvation Army. The money they raise during the Red Kettle Campaign will change lives for the better all year long.

So far, so good, right? But after Goulding shared on Instagram a photo of herself at a Salvation Army location, some of her fans pointed out that the Salvation Army has a reported history of anti-LGBTQ+ actions and beliefs.

Thus chastened, Goulding issued the following statement threatening to cancel her performance in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show:

Upon researching this, I have reached out to The Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community. I am a committed philanthropist as you probably know, and my heart has always been in helping the homeless, but supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this 

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Goulding’s threat to pull out of the halftime show put the NFL into an especially difficult position, and not just from a logistics standpoint. The NFL is already caught in a cultural maelstrom stemming from the fall-out from Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. The league could really do without another headache like this one.

The Salvation Army Leaps into Action

Fortunately for the NFL, Goulding apparently decided to perform after all, according to The Dallas Morning News. And the NFL has the Salvation Army to thank. Her threat prompted a dialogue with the Salvation Army, which convinced her that the show must go on. Obviously, the Salvation Army is ready for this kind of negative news. Instead of circling the wagons, the organization quickly responded to Goulding and talked with the news media about its stance toward LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, Salvation Army representatives talked with The Dallas Morning News and put a positive spin on the situation. Maj. Jon Rich, a Salvation Army commander in Texas, said,

It brings attention to how inclusive we are as an organization and serving everyone no matter who they are, what their sexual orientation is, what their station in life is. We serve without discrimination. It’s our international mission statement that we serve human needs without discrimination.

He said that the organization is evolving its practices to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and characterized anti-LGBTQ+ statements from Salvation Army members as uncharacteristic of the Salvation Army’s values. The interview was a textbook case of being responsive in a moment of crisis. 

The NFL Is Caught in the Middle

Goulding’s reluctance to perform created a negative news cycle for both the Salvation Army and the league at a particularly trying time for the NFL. The NFL, caught in the middle, was wise to say nothing, even though at least one writer in Business Insider called on the league “to take a page from Goulding’s book and back her up” (the writer stopped short of recommending specific actions). It’s not that the Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is insignificant; rather, the news quickly began to blow over. Why draw attention to the story – especially as the NFL was dealing with Colin Kaepernick once again creating news for the league?  

Social and Political Activism Creates Complications 

The Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is the latest high-profile example of a brand/artist collaboration taking a left turn into the realm of political/social consciousness. I recently blogged about the 1,000+ musicians who have boycotted the Intersect music festival because it is sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The musicians object to AWS’s work with Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Musicians can lend incredible cultural relevance to brands. Lyft bought its way into coolness by forming a partnership with Kendrick Lamar for his Championship Tour. Belvedere Vodka looked woke by working with Janelle Monáe on brand-sponsored short films. But in an era of political and social activism in music, brand-artist collaborations can create tension.

The Lesson for Brands

If you’re going to partner with a musician, it’s important to:

  • Understand that all musicians now operate in context of a wide-ranging social and political awakening (“pop’s great woke awakening,” as Pitchfork puts it). Do your homework and understand the social and political forces pressuring musicians to take a stand.
  • Find a musician who aligns with your brand. If your business has embraced brand activism, then an outspoken artist might be the perfect match. If you avoid brand activism, then find a safer musician. Whatever you do, find someone who aligns with your brand values. As part of your due diligence, examine what they say and do on social media.
  • Be ready to act when things go the way you didn’t expect. As I noted, on the surface, Ellie Goulding aligned well with the NFL and the Salvation Army. But all it took was one Instagram post for the relationship to nearly become derailed. Be prepared to act when the unexpected hits, as the Salvation Army was when its name got dragged through the mud. Anyone who works with performers in a live setting should know that planning for the unexpected is part of the process, politics and social activism aside.

With an election year coming up, brands can expect musicians to become even more outspoken than they are now. Buckle up. We’re all in for a bumpy ride.

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