Today’s brands will do almost anything to score new fans. They’ll pay celebrities upwards of $500,000 to pose with their product on Instagram. They’ll throw lavish parties stocked with more champagne and floral arrangements than a royal wedding. They’ll even arm a fleet of St. Bernard puppies with phone-charging necklaces to rescue depleted phones on demand at music festivals.
Marketing teams dream of blocks-long lineups, the next viral video and vibrant fan clubs that like, post and share until carpal tunnel sets in. But what happens when a brand accrues some not-so-savoury followers?
As much as brands want fans, they have to be the right fans in order to keep their precious images intact. You can’t just have anyone wandering around back alleys with the latest Louis Vuitton purse or stuffy socialites repping your line of anti-establishment unisex hipster sweatshirts. In their rush to gain traction, companies have often stumbled into the tricky situation of trying to distance themselves from unwanted fans that don’t fit their ethos.
Sometimes, that admirer is a single person, often a public-facing celebrity that the brand doesn’t want its wares to be associated with. Earlier this decade, the infamously orange and profane cast of Jersey Shore caused quite a few brands grief when they latched onto products that used to be represented in a more dignified light. When The Situation began to regularly don Abercrombie & Fitch, the company went so far as to offer him a substantial amount of money to stop wearing their clothes. “We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans,” a spokesperson said in a statement released to media.
His co-star Snookie, best known for being drunk and disorderly on the beach and getting punched out in a bar fight, caused a flurry of headaches for luxury bag designers who wanted nothing to do with her. In a glorious display of public relations espionage, brands went so far as to actively stock her with merchandise from competing labels.
Cristal champagne didn’t take too kindly when JAY-Z frequently dropped their name in his lyrics. “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business,” Frédéric Rouzaud told The Economist in a 2006 interview. JAY-Z in turn called the comment racist and led the hip-hop nation in a boycott before purchasing his own champagne brand, Armand de Brignac (also known as Ace of Spades).
Today’s most contentious celebrity fan hails from an unexpected place: The White House. First Lady Melania Trump is a former model known for her sartorial sense, but her husband’s brash antics and controversial politics render her a public relations liability. The list of designers who refuse to dress her include Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen, Christian Siriano and Sophie Theallet. Humberto Leon, creative director of Kenzo, wrote on Facebook, “No one should dress Melania and if she buys your clothes, tell people you don’t support it.” When she wore a $10,000 Michael Kors dress to watch her husband address Congress, the designer tactfully implied that it was purchased with her own dime.
Sometimes, however, the problem is much larger than just one individual. While one can disavow a celebrity or offer the fashion equivalent of hush money to a D-lister, it’s much harder to disown an entire community of unwanted fans. Fred Perry, a luxury sportswear brand normally worn by famous tennis players and the likes of J.F.K., found itself in uncharted waters when skinheads and white nationalists became some of their most loyal customers.
Across the world, from Britain to Malaysia, their pique polo shirts with a signature laurel wreath logo embroidered on the front showed up in media coverage of racist skinhead rock shows and far-right rallies. While Fred Perry has publicly tried to distance themselves from this rogue fan base, it hasn’t done much good. Their shirts could be spotted just a few weeks ago in Charlottesville.
Last November, New Balance almost suffered a similar fate when Neo-Nazis tried to claim the brand, declaring them “the official shoes of white people.” The founder of Daily Stormer encouraged fans to purchase the shoes. New Balance quickly rebuked the effort in a Twitter post saying they do “not tolerate hatred or bigotry in any form.” Their quick reaction nipped the PR crisis in the bud and reassured dads everywhere that New Balances are still politically correct footwear.
In a more extreme response, Burberry went so far as to stop producing its popular check-pattern baseball cap in 2004 because of its association with football hooligans who frequently started fights at matches. One group of thugs even dubbed themselves the “Burberry Boys,” and several pubs began to turn away customers wearing the caps. The tactic worked; the brand is still thriving a decade later and has no current association with hooligans.
The danger of unintended and unwanted endorsements is greater than ever with images and comments instantly shared and spread through social media. Anyone can express an opinion or release a photo of themselves at any time, meaning brands have to be constantly on guard. Today’s politically charged atmosphere doesn’t help matters either. It can be disastrous for a brand to be unintentionally associated with extreme views or any political leaning at all.
A rapid response is key to limiting damage.
Keeping products out of the wrong hands is increasingly as important as placing them in the right hands. Too many brands have learned the hard way that the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” doesn’t hold true when a horde of torch-bearing extremists is wearing your logo for all the world to see.