Business

What To Do When the Devil Wears [Your Brand]

Consumers select brands they regard as matches to their self-image, and a positive public role model associated with your brand helps facilitate this comparison. Once consumers form adverse associations with your brand, this may result in decreased revenue and other financial harm. The more this happens, or the longer it continues unaddressed, the greater the threat that consumers will form a negative association between your brand and a controversial figure.

Managers who find themselves in a similar situation must ask the following three questions: What are the risks from such an incident? What can we do to counteract the criticism? What (if any) long-term consequences have brands suffered because of similar circumstances?

Protecting a brand’s equity and value should be one of an executive’s key responsibilities. Companies buy protection software and use blacklists to stop questionable publishers and endorsers from negatively portraying their brand, for example. But what happens when the brand is displayed unfavorably in an environment that the marketer can’t control?

This is exactly what happened to Italian brand Loro Piana — part of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH — on March 18, 2022. During a rally televised on Russian state TV celebrating Russia’s unpopular and tagic invasion of Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin wore a $14,000 Loro Piana parka. The parka was identified by public observers and Loro Piana was heavily criticized on social media for not denouncing Putin soon enough.

While the situation in Russia is uniquely dire, it’s not unusual for companies to find themselves in situations where their products are suddenly associated with a public figure, event, or celebrity immersed in scandal or tragedy. Based on our research of past events, we’ve determined that companies must start by asking the following three questions:

  • What are the risks from such an incident?
  • What can we do to counteract the criticism?
  • What (if any) long-term consequences have brands suffered because of similar circumstances?

In this article, we attempt to provide brands with several mitigation options for incidents where an inadvertent association with a public figure proves harmful.

Previous research has demonstrated that celebrity endorsements tend to affect sales and even stock returns. The reason is not too surprising: Consumers select brands that match their self-image, and a positive public role model associated with your brand helps facilitate this comparison. Once people form adverse associations with your brand, and the longer it continues unaddressed, the greater the threat that consumers will form a negative association between your brand and a controversial figure.

The examples of these associations are many. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011, was at least twice shown on camera wearing LaCoste sweaters. ISIS propaganda videos were found to regularly feature Toyota pick-up trucks and SUVs. Burberry had also been increasingly adopted by rowdy soccer fans, apparently because of its traditional check pattern. The group, which called themselves “The Burberry Boys,” donned a baseball cap featuring Burberry’s signature pattern when it attacked rival fans at a match in Sunderland between England and Turkey.

As a result, British pubs and taxi drivers at the beginning of the millennium started banning patrons who wore Burberry. And Lonsdale, the English sports brand focusing on boxing and mixed martial arts, became increasingly the clothing choice of skinheads and neo-Nazis in Germany in the early 2000s.

Risk Mitigation Strategies

Consider litigation.

Depending on where the unintentional association occurred, you could pursue legal avenues to prevent a public figure from showcasing your brand logos on TV or during public events. However, if the event occurs in a foreign country — particularly if the foreign power is hostile — the legal path will likely be unfruitful.

Even if your brand logos aren’t visible, audiences may still recognize your products and spread the word that the product is associated with a controversial figure or event. Putin’s personal stylists reportedly rip labels off of his clothing to avoid the attention that is drawn to the expensive brands that he wears. But even without logos, consumers often recognize the distinct product features of premium brands.

Limit access to products.

Suppliers in most countries have the right to choose who they wish to deal with and who they don’t. Toyota has procedures in place to protect supply chain integrity and a policy to not sell vehicles to potential purchasers who may use or modify their cars for paramilitary or terrorist activities. British sports label Lonsdale refused to deliver clothing to shops associated with extremists in Germany. LaCoste also reached out to the Norwegian police and requested that Breivik be prevented from wearing their clothes.

But stopping someone from wearing or acquiring a brand’s product indefinitely is usually impossible. Anyone can buy a product through a middleman or on a second-hand marketplace. Pier Luigi Loro Piana, deputy chairman of the brand, told an Italian newspaper that Putin wearing the jacket “creates some embarrassment.” “It is clear which side we are on,” Piana said. “The Ukrainians will have all our moral and practical support.”

Remove or modify products.

If negative associations can be tied to only a single product or brand element, you can also consider altering the brand portfolio or even cancelling a product line. This sacrifice may mean less revenue in the short term but can help protect the brand’s long-term health. Burberry decided to feature the check pattern less and less on its garments for several years, while also introducing more daring designs to appeal to potential fashion opinion leaders and to refresh the luxury image of the brand. The company even halted the production of its baseball cap, which had been popular among The Burberry Boys.

Draft a strong response.

Whenever potentially reputation-affecting events occur, it is important to develop a strong PR response and take control of the situation. You should first clarify who is and who is not an official endorser of the brand.

A marketing campaign can help recalibrate brand perception if management is concerned that statements alone are insufficient. New media campaigns could feature a positive role model and remind the public about the desired brand user base to balance or address any user image distortions. To slowly bring back its historic check design and foster desired audience associations, Burberry sought collaborations with aspirational designers and influencers in recent years.

Lonsdale started PR initiatives that ran contrary to the ideologies supported by the extremists. Around 2003, the brand launched the “Lonsdale Loves All Colours” advertising campaign, which portrayed fashion models of different backgrounds and sponsored pro-tolerance events and left-leaning sports clubs. These actions did not go unnoticed by the public. Anti-racist protestors decided to support Lonsdale and started wearing the brand, thereby distorting the purely far-right image.

And after noticing that a cast member of the controversial reality show Jersey Shore had started wearing its clothes, Abercrombie & Fitch offered to pay the cast members to never wear its clothes on air. While this offer was unlikely to ever be taken seriously by the cast members, it was a smart PR move because it turned a possibly negative event into positive publicity.

Executives can learn from these examples. Some of the takeaways we see are:

  • Distance yourself immediately from any unofficial public figure, celebrity, or group endorsers.
  • Show that you care about the people who may suffer from any adverse actions linked to the unwanted brand ambassador or user group (as Loro Piana did, mentioning support for Ukrainian people).
  • Do not comment on any financial impact the harmful public figure or group may have on your brand (e.g. sales revenue drops or increases).
  • Consider additional PR initiatives (positive role models, ad campaigns reinforcing the desired image) that offset the potential implied adverse brand association.

The Long-Term Consequences

Unwanted and unintentional brand endorsements may be unavoidable. Doing the right thing can be costly and require patience and persistence. After Lonsdale started distancing itself from extremists, sales in Germany decreased 35%. Despite the ongoing efforts of Lonsdale, many Europeans still seem to connect the brand with the extreme right.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to mitigate possible harm. Be sure to consult your attorneys, plan a strong PR response, and try your best to turn a negative situation into positive publicity. Even if your mitigation attempts fail, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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