Is sticking by the NRA a branding problem? Ask FedEx, Apple and Amazon

There’s little advantage for most companies to stick with the National Rifle Association as public pressure after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school pushes them to cut ties with the influential gun owners’ group, say branding experts.

“Unless you’re in an adjacent industry like hunting, having a public connection with the NRA is” highly detrimental to a brand, said Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Kwittken, a New York-based corporate brand reputation and crisis management agency.

As of Monday, companies that had ended financial relationships with the gun group included Delta Air Lines, United Airlines; Enterprise, Alamo, National, Hertz, Avis and Budget car rentals; Symantec; Starkey Hearing Technologies; TrueCar; MetLife; SimpliSafe; and First National Bank of Omaha.

But some companies have resisted calls to cut ties.

FedEx said it was keeping a discount deal for NRA members while issuing a statement that tried to distance its views on gun policy from the group’s.

On Tuesday it clarified that the discount program it offers is for NRA members, not the organization itself. FedEx has never provided any donation or sponsorship to the NRA, the company said.

Two other notable companies that have resisted increasingly strident calls to end financial relationships with the gun owners group are Apple and Amazon, both of which have refused to yank an NRA public relations channel from their streaming services. A petition launched Friday to push Amazon to drop the channel had garnered 200,000 signatures by Tuesday.

Meanwhile, both the NRA and a Georgia official have threatened retaliation for the cascade of severed business deals that followed 19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz’s attack on his former high school Feb. 14 with an AR-15-style rifle he bought legally a year ago.

Teen survivors of the rampage, which killed 17, and their families began protests calling for gun reform, which quickly launched them onto the national stage and coalesced around social media, with the hashtag #NeverAgain. News website ThinkProgress, part of liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress Action Fund, then started to call on companies to cut their ties with the NRA. The #boycottNRA tag picked up steam.

A series of national marches calling for gun control are now scheduled for March 24.

The NRA said Saturday that over time it expects the brands that have deserted it to “be replaced by others who recognize that patriotism and determined commitment to Constitutional freedoms are characteristics of a marketplace they very much want to serve.”

Conservatives in Georgia’s Senate on Monday threatened to block a $40 million benefitto Delta that the state House had approved if the airline operator did not renew its discount program with the NRA.

“Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us to not fight back,” tweeted Georgia Lt. Govr Casey Cagle, a Republican.

Those who study corporations and economics aren’t convinced these threats will carry enough weight.

“The corporations (breaking ties with the NRA) are not taking a large risk by engaging in this. They’re incurring greater risk if they don’t try to ally themselves with this strong population majority and the emotionally compelling voice of these young people,” said Charles Derber, a professor of sociology at Boston College who studies corporate power and justice movements.

States and municipalities often find themselves more beholden to corporations than the other way around. For instance, states and municipalities have rushed to offer incentives to get Amazon to choose them as a location for its second headquarters, Derber noted.

Nationwide, 61% of Americans say tightening gun-control laws and background checks would prevent more mass shootings in the United States, and 63% believe semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 should be banned, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk poll.

Yet the NRA has proved highly successful determining who gets elected at local and national levels, a function of guiding its more than 5 million members on voting decisions using its NRA ratings guide.

Together with other gun-rights organizations, it spent nearly $55 million in the 2016 election cycle to oppose or support candidates through independent spending. That spending has made it one of the most powerful political organizations in America, according to Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of the 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

One of the biggest holdouts so far in the largely online effort to get companies to end special financial deals with the NRA has been Memphis-based FedEx.

While keeping the discount, FedEx said it “opposes assault rifles being in the hands of civilians,” viewing them as “an inherent potential danger to schools, workplaces and communities” and supporting restricting them to the military.

Social media has allowed for rapidly spreading campaigns to pressure companies.  The teen survivors who have been calling for lawmakers to take action have been adept at using Twitter to organize, rally and respond to critics.

One of the teen survivors, Cameron Kasky, who has more than 200,000 Twitter followers, on Feb. 21 retweeted a FedEx logo that had its second E turned into a gun, using the hashtag #NeverAgain. It has been retweeted more than 700 times.