It’s happened to Doc Martins, Burberry and others over the years: groups turned their brand into a symbol of something the brand itself did not believe or endorse. This time it’s New Balance.
In retrospect, New Balance may regret even offering an opinion. What started out as a discussion point by a spokesperson about the brand’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership was perceived by others as an endorsement of the incoming Administration’s wider political and trade policies. It escalated from there when a right-wing blogger claimed New Balance had now become “the official shoes of white people”. Suddenly, the footwear company found itself associated with ideas that were the very antithesis of its principles.
So how can your brand avoid becoming associated with an idea or a group looking to hijack your brand equity? Today, brands must increasingly balance the expectations of openness and the need to be transparent with the possibility that some will look to leverage a brand’s presence for their own ends. While it’s impossible to reduce the risk of misattribution to zero, here are five practical steps your brand can take to ensure people know your real views.
1. Pick Your Timing – As Dorothy Crenshaw observed in this article, what you say can be perceived in very different ways depending on when it is said. Given current political tensions, this was probably not the best time to express a view that could be seen as endorsing one side of the political divide – particularly when many buyers see themselves as being firmly on the opposite side.
2. Focus On What You Stand For – New Balance would probably have drawn a lot less flak from the interview if they had focused on their pride in building a world-class manufacturing company at home. By broadening the discussion to include international trade policy and specifically calling out Trump’s direction as feeling like the right direction, they became entangled in a matter others were happy to reframe to make themselves heard. This in turn lifted the risk that New Balance would find itself associated with opinions that were not its own. As Frank Luntz once observed, what you say and what people choose to hear aren’t always the same thing. I would add that what you mean, and how others choose to publicize how they interpret what you mean are also not always the same.
3. Brief Your People Clearly – Make sure your people, particularly those who are writing or speaking publicly on your behalf, are very clear about they can, and cannot, be drawn on. The key here is having very clear frames of reference for what will, and will not, be discussed in the brand’s name, and ensuring that the discussion itself remains within those boundaries. That’s not to say that brands should be opaque, but rather that they should know their opinion limits. Sound bytes have no context. But see below for more on this.
4. Feature Your Beliefs Upfront – The views that you do have as a brand should not come as a surprise. One simple way to ‘prove’ what you stand for is to articulate beliefs openly. That way, it’s harder for others to overlay a different interpretation, because your intentions and principles are already clear. But again, make sure your viewpoints relate directly to what you do. As brands like Starbucks have discovered when they tried to spark discussion on racism, no matter how noble your intentions, you can quickly get into trouble if you platform on an idea that customers see as too big and too important to be ‘reduced’ to a brand initiative.
5. Form Considered Viewpoints – As this BBC commentary makes clear, the days of companies and CEOs being able to bat away inconvenient questions are over. So, while it’s important that companies not over-step sensitive parameters, it’s also important that they are open enough about their dealings to inspire trust. If this seems at odds with what’s above, it’s about being clear, consistent and insightful about the factors that affect your brand directly and indirectly.
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