Caution: Don’t Let External Audiences Kidnap Your Brand!

A fundamental principle ibrand management, building a brand, brand management, corporate branding, corporate rebranding, reputation managementn the world of marketing is that an organization does not control its brand. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but the truth is that the market, your current and potential customers, and consumers define your brand. You can try to influence your brand through your marketing communication efforts but, ultimately, no business can fully control the perceptions of the masses.

This is a lesson that athletic shoe company New Balance recently learned — and is still learning — the hard way. It all started innocuously enough. New Balance manufactures shoes in the United States, very much a rarity in the industry. The company has often opposed trade deals such as the highly politicized Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In the context of that opposition, The Wall Street Journal quoted New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, Matthew LeBretton, as saying, “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”

While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also—at least publicly—opposed the TPP, anti-Trumpers were quick to react to LeBretton’s comments. Katie Mettler, in an article for The Washington Post, discusses the incredible backlash, including social media videos of long-time customers swearing off the brand and even burning their New Balance shoes.

NPR also ran a story on the reaction, quoting Harvard marketing professor Rohit Deshpande as saying, “In an age of social media, it’s all too easy for a company to lose control of that brand when things spin out of control.” Deshpande says the reaction from liberal customers isn’t surprising. “When it’s such a politically charged time, when the nation is so riven, to say something that is easily perceived as a political endorsement—I think that was really bad timing.”

Seemingly picking one side over the other in a heated political environment would be bad enough. But New Balance’s problems got even worse. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The alt-right website The Daily Stormer proclaimed New Balance the ‘Official Shoes of White People.’”

This is a perfect example of the challenges a company can face controlling its own brand. Once a perception takes hold, it can be very tough to shake, despite the best efforts of the company. But Deshpande points out that the company can salvage its brand by “being much more explicit about the values of the company—and I think they’ve begun this by saying that we’re a very inclusive organization.” Indeed, Amy Dow, who manages communications for New Balance, said, “New Balance acted very quickly to disavow any connection to anyone or anything that supports or promotes bigotry or hatred.”

Time will tell how successful New Balance’s efforts will be in reclaiming its brand, but the example serves as a cautionary tale to marketers on the difficulty of controlling an organization’s brand. If a company isn’t vigilant in monitoring and attempting to manage its brand, the market may just define it for them on its own terms.

How are you managing your brand to ensure it doesn’t take on new, unintended, meaning for your markets?

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