As society advances and evolves, companies are transitioning to create inclusive designs and products, which means clashes with highly opinionated individuals are inevitable, such as with the Kohl’s controversy. Kohl’s, one of the leading general retailers in the US, faced intense backlash over its Pride merchandise in 2023. The controversy offers a perfect example of navigating your way as a socially responsible brand.

Here at Business2Community, we’re experts in crafting valuable and easy-to-understand business resources for your brand to grow and maximize profits. In this article, we will dive deep into the ins and outs of the Kohl’s controversy so you can understand how to navigate social responsibility.

Kohl’s Controversy – Key Facts

  • In May 2023, Kohl’s launched a series of Pride merchandise that included baby clothing items, inducing public uproar from conservatives who believed the brand was spreading transgender ideology to children.
  • Kohl’s was one of the many American businesses attacked by the US right-wingers during this time.
  • Just a week after its Pride collection launch, Kohl’s cut prices by up to 60% in an attempt to salvage sales.

The Story of the Kohl’s Controversy

With more than 1,100 stores across 49 states, Kohl’s is one of the most well-known general store chains in the US, established over half a century ago. From clothing items to accessories to household tools, it offers a wide range of budget-friendly products for American households.

kohl's office

Every year, to celebrate Pride Month in June, the brand launches a dedicated rainbow collection. Its Pride Month merchandise ranges from clothes, cups, and notebooks to shoes. Kohl’s Pride collection never encountered much trouble until 2023, when conservatives began targeting companies that promote LGBTQ designs and products.

The Kohl’s controversy offers key insights about balancing opposite views and standing up for your corporate values. Let’s take a look at what you can learn from Kohl’s crisis management techniques.

Kohl’s Pushed Out Pride Merchandise for Babies

To celebrate Pride Month 2023 in June, the leading department store giant launched its Pride collection to support the LGBTQ community. It was not a unique or new move for the company to sell Pride merch – it had been pushing out LGBTQ Pride campaigns annually, like many other major retailers such as Target and IKEA.

The collection included Pride-themed clothes, rainbow pants, mugs, and pillows, among other Pride-themed merchandise for customers of all ages. Up until 2023, the retail company hadn’t experienced major issues concerning its Pride items. However, as the dislike towards the LGBTQ community has grown among conservatives, this year’s collection generated significant backlash for the brand.

kohl's pride collection 2023

Out of all its Pride-themed items, its Pride bodysuit set designed for babies under a year old garnered the most criticism. The grey baby onesie and rainbow pants featured what seemed to be a lesbian couple with three children and a dog. One of the adults held a progressive Pride flag and one of the children was in a wheelchair.

Kohl’s Faced Intense Backlash Over Pride Merchandise

The launch of Kohl’s Pride Month merchandise immediately generated heated backlash from conservatives, resulting in a call to boycott the US retailer.

Morgonn, a contributor for conservative political NGO TPUSA, said via X (formerly Twitter) that Kohl’s “is promoting transgender ideology to kids as young as 3 months old.” She called Kohl’s decision to include such items “disgusting.”

Political columnist Benny Johnson also expressed his anger to his millions of followers, asking, “Why is Kohl’s selling “Pride Merch” for 3 month old babies?”

Online commentator ALX further added:

“In case you need clothes for your Gay or Trans 3 month old, Kohl’s has you covered”

To which another user Tweeted, “Another Company needing Bud-lighting!”, referencing the boycott of Bud Light for partnering with trans creator Dylan Mulvaney during a promotion.

Critics were shocked at Kohl’s Pride collection, urging the company to take down the items in question and the public to boycott its products. Most of these conservative critics emphasized that their anger towards 2023’s Pride Month merchandise didn’t have anything to do with the LGBTQ community but only the fact that it was targeting infants and toddlers who have yet to develop a sense of gender identity.

Aside from targeting Kohl’s for its Pride merchandise, some users noted that their videos criticizing Kohl’s on TikTok were removed due to hate speech, igniting new rounds of debates over freedom of speech and media censorship.

Kohl’s wasn’t the only brand in hot water during 2023 Pride Month. Right before Kohl’s launched its Pride clothing collection, Target also faced backlash from upset customers for its rainbow-themed items. Target claimed that employees experienced inappropriate behavior, including significant confrontational behavior as a result.

Kohl’s Yields to Backlash and Removes Some Items

Eventually, the company issued a statement saying it was removing some items from its collection due to the “volatile circumstances” and to prevent workers from experiencing “the most significant confrontational behavior.”

The public uproar wiped out $10 billion in market valuation for the brand in less than 2 weeks. The LGBT British designer behind some of Target’s Pride merchandise also shared his frustration as the department store pulled items designed by him without consulting him first. He condemned the brand for not standing up for the marginalized community and not reaching out to the designers involved to understand the adverse mental effects on them.

Many businesses that supported the LGBTQ community during that time received hostile attacks both virtually and physically from upset customers.

The Consequences of the Kohl’s Controversy

For the traditional US retailer, the controversy put it in a tough spot. It had to decide whether to stand for modern-day values or please its conservative customers. Seeing how other companies lost billions in valuation and sales, Kohl’s decided to cut prices shortly after the Pride launch to boost sales.

It also decided to not publicly address the outrage and continue to support the LGBTQ community with its rainbow collections.

Kohl’s Cut Pride Collection Product Prices by Half

Only 9 days after Kohl’s faced serious backlash for pushing LGBTQ Pride products, the budget-friendly retailer quietly cut prices on the majority of its Pride products with discounts up to 60%. From rainbow shirts to Pride-themed pillows to the baby onesie that reaped tremendous criticism, Kohl’s was cutting prices across its collection.

The discounts were applied to both online and physical stores. Kohl’s did not respond to media requests for comments regarding the price slash, but many suspected the move was an attempt to salvage the situation after Target had also experienced a stark drop in valuation following its Pride merch launch.

Kohl’s Never Publicly Addressed the Situation

Unlike Target, which addressed the public outrage on numerous occasions and defended its decisions to pull store items because “employees experienced inappropriate behavior”, Kohl’s never formally discussed the issue.

On Kohl’s official website, it stated that it would be “committed to amplifying and affirming the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community, celebrating the joy that comes from living authentically and unapologetically not just this month, but all year long.”

kohls pride statement

It would appear that the brand tried to stand up for its beliefs, which were well-received by the LGBTQ community and liberals. Following the incident, many customers Tweeted their support for the American general store chain.

A year after the controversy, Kohl’s continued to promote its Pride collection in 2024 and support the LGBTQ group through donations and charity.

Kohl’s Stock Performance Improved Amid Boycott Calls

Despite the boycott threats, Kohl’s did not remove its Pride items and only offered discounts to boost sales. Its stance to back the LGBTQ community also facilitated sales among its supporters and built faith in liberal investors.

Instead of seeing a drop in valuation like Target and Bud Light, Kohl’s stock saw a miracle return. On June 1, 2023, at the peak of the boycott, its stock reached $17.89, the lowest ever since May 2020. However, it was quick to bounce back. Its stock price went up by 12% immediately the next day and even reached $22.94 in the month that followed.

kohls stock price

Kohl’s was one of the few companies that was not adversely hit by the LGBTQ controversies of 2023. Its upswing suggested that investors and users were confident of the brand and supported its actions to carry on its Pride sales.

Its 2023 sales reached $18 billion. Although its total revenue was down from $19.40 billion in 2022, the decline was not drastic and more or less aligned with normal sales fluctuations the company had recorded over the years.

Its sales figures would suggest that the company navigated the controversy well. It continued to gain support from loyal consumers.

What Can We Learn From the Kohl’s Controversy?

As cultural and political polarization rises, clashes are bound to happen in the business field. The traditional retailer decided not to respond to the 2023 outrage publicly but continued its work in supporting the marginalized group. Its actions won the support of the LGBTQ community and it did not see a major drop in sales.

Bridging the gap between modern values and conservative beliefs can be challenging, particularly for long-standing businesses with a major conservative customer base. Whether you’re starting your entrepreneurship journey or changing things up within your organization, understanding ever-changing customer expectations is vital to success.

The best investment you can make for your company is to work with a team of professionals and constantly keep up with trending news to study the current business landscape. In times of crisis, you must evaluate the potential reputational damage and how to salvage the situation while standing firm on your business ethics.


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