What to do when the devil wears [Your Brand]

Consumers select brands that they see as fitting their self-image, and a positive public role model associated with your brand facilitates this comparison. Once consumers have formed negative associations with your brand, it can lead to lower revenue and other financial damage. The more this happens, or the longer it goes unaddressed, the greater the threat of consumers forming a negative association between your brand and a controversial figure.

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

Protecting brand equity and value should be one of a leader’s primary responsibilities. Companies buy protection software and use blacklists to prevent dodgy publishers and endorsers from negatively portraying their brand, for example. But what happens when the brand displays unfavorably in an environment that the marketer cannot control?

That’s exactly what happened to Italian brand Loro Piana – part of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH – on March 18, 2022. During a televised rally on Russian state television celebrating the unpopular invasion and Tag of Ukraine by Russia, President Vladimir Putin wore a $14,000 Loro Piana. parka. The parka has been identified by public observers and Loro Piana has been heavily criticized on social media for not speaking out against Putin soon enough.

Although the situation in Russia is particularly dire, it is not uncommon for companies to find themselves in situations where their products are suddenly associated with a public figure, event or celebrity embroiled in scandal or tragedy. Based on our research into past events, we have determined that companies should start by asking themselves the following three questions:

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

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

Previous research has shown that celebrity endorsements tend to affect sales and even stock returns. The reason isn’t too surprising: consumers select brands that match their self-image, and a positive public role model associated with your brand makes that comparison easier. Once people form negative associations with your brand, and the longer this goes unaddressed, the greater the threat of consumers forming a negative association between your brand and a controversial figure.

There are many examples of these associations. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011, was filmed at least twice wearing LaCoste sweaters. ISIS propaganda videos have been found to regularly feature Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs. Burberry had also been increasingly embraced by rambunctious football fans, apparently because of its traditional plaid pattern. The group, who called themselves ‘The Burberry Boys’, donned baseball caps with Burberry’s signature design when they attacked rival fans during a game in Sunderland between England and Turkey.

As a result, British pubs and taxi drivers around the turn of the millennium began banning customers who wore Burberry. And Lonsdale, the English sports brand focused on boxing and mixed martial arts, increasingly became the clothing choice for skinheads and neo-Nazis in Germany in the early 2000s.

Risk mitigation strategies

Consider litigation.

Depending on where the unintended association occurred, you can pursue legal avenues to prevent a public figure from featuring your brand logos on television or at public events. However, if the event occurs in a foreign country – particularly if the foreign power is hostile – the legal route will likely be unsuccessful.

Even if your brand logos are not visible, the public can still recognize your products and convey the message that the product is associated with a controversial figure or event. Putin’s personal stylists reportedly ripped tags off his clothes to avoid the attention drawn to the expensive brands he wears. But even without logos, consumers often recognize the distinct characteristics of premium brand products.

Limit access to products.

In most countries, suppliers have the right to choose who they want to deal with and who they don’t. Toyota has procedures in place to protect the integrity of the supply chain and a policy of not selling vehicles to potential buyers who may use or modify their cars for paramilitary or terrorist activity. British sports brand Lonsdale has refused to deliver clothing to stores associated with extremists in Germany. LaCoste also contacted the Norwegian police and asked that Breivik be stopped from wearing their clothes.

But preventing someone from wearing or acquiring a brand’s product indefinitely is usually impossible. Anyone can buy a product through an intermediary or on a second-hand market place. Pier Luigi Loro Piana, the brand’s vice president, told an Italian newspaper that Putin wearing the jacket “creates a certain embarrassment”. “It’s clear which side we’re on,” Piana said. “The Ukrainians will have our full moral and practical support.”

Delete or modify products.

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

Write a strong response.

Whenever reputational events occur, it is important to develop a strong public relations response and take control of the situation. First you need to clarify who is and who is not an official brand endorser.

A marketing campaign can help recalibrate brand perception if management is concerned that statements alone are not enough. New media campaigns could present a positive model and remind the audience of the desired brand’s user base to balance or correct any distortion in the user’s image. To slowly bring back its historic plaid pattern and foster desired audience associations, Burberry has sought out collaborations with ambitious designers and influencers in recent years.

Lonsdale launched public relations initiatives that went against the ideologies supported by the extremists. Around 2003, the brand launched the ‘Lonsdale Loves All Colours’ advertising campaign, which portrayed models from different walks of life and sponsored pro-tolerance events and left-wing sports clubs. These actions have not gone unnoticed by the public. Anti-racism protesters decided to support Lonsdale and began wearing the brand, distorting the purely far-right image.

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

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

  • Immediately distance yourself from any unofficial public figures, celebrities or group supporters.
  • Show that you care about people who may experience negative actions related to the brand ambassador or unwanted user group (like Loro Piana did, mentioning support for Ukrainians).
  • Don’t comment on the financial impact the public figure or harmful group might have on your brand (eg, decrease or increase in revenue).
  • Consider additional public relations initiatives (positive role models, advertising campaigns reinforcing the desired image) that offset the potential implicit negative association with the brand.

The long term consequences

Unwanted and unintentional brand mentions can be unavoidable. Doing the right thing can be costly and takes patience and perseverance. After Lonsdale began to distance itself from extremists, sales in Germany fell by 35%. Despite Lonsdale’s continued efforts, many Europeans still seem to associate the brand with the far right.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to mitigate any damage. Be sure to consult with your attorneys, plan a solid public relations response, and do your best to turn a negative situation into positive publicity. Even if your attempts at mitigation fail, prevention is better than cure.

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