While catching up on New Balance’s damage control efforts, I stumbled across a story on NPR. One bit in particular caught my eye: “it’s the community that creates the meaning.”
That was via the eloquent Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School. The phrase really flows doesn’t it? Almost like the ending to the perfect feel-good PSA, it resembles a call to action. But, what Deshpande did there is what most good professors do. He said in simple terms what large corporations really ought to know.
When you have a product that people consume publicly, your control on its meaning is often minimal. We, as consumers, are almost completely in charge of deciding what a brand means. It’s a simple concept, and that is where New Balance really failed themselves.
As a general rule, it’s never a good idea for a brand to get political. There are, of course, exceptions. You can’t be against equal pay. You certainly can’t be an opponent of civil liberties. But, issues arise when a corporation gets involved in slightly more focused matters. Now, a trade deal isn’t unrelated to NB. This is especially true when it makes life a little harder for the brand. That being said, the timing of their gaffe could not have been worse.
The easiest thing to do here was to stay silent. Why risk alienating entire sections of a consumer base? But, beyond that, the PR problems haven’t ended for New Balance. First, the reaction to an NB executive’s pro-Trump stance resulted in many of those opposed to completely boycott the brand. Then, when the company’s expectedly level-headed response was made, some white supremacists were…less so.
And it’s going to get a bit worse before it gets better. This story is headline worthy around the country. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Daily Stormer (the neo-fascist site in the middle of all this) is now a trending topic. Combine that with the hit that NB has already taken, and you have this situation continuing to extend itself.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that the brand as a whole didn’t land itself in this mess. After all, it is one executive we’re talking about here. Yet, this is still an example worth noting because of what brands are likely taking away from it. Namely, the lesson that, for the most part, a corporation should stay away from the pulpit of politics.
The deeper lesson here comes from the Deshpande quote. A brand is only about as worthy as their consumers see them. Even a company’s efforts at self-branding are about affecting how we feel about them. A community is a volatile, dynamic, diversified concept. The best way for sneaker brands to avoid PR scares is to stick to what they do best.