The author and his dogs on The Lawn at the University of Virginia. The Rotunda appears in the background.

 

What keeps marketing executives up at night? A duo of sticky problems:

  1. how to create unique product designs that consumers easily recognize, and
  2. how to ensure consumers prefer their product, and not ones that appear similar.

By solving these two challenges, marketers earn a beautiful gem: brand equity. Enjoy it. Cherish it. But remember – in an instant, that gem can turn ugly.

On August 11, 2017, white supremacists organized a rally called Unite the Right, and marched in Charlottesville. The group of about 100 men and women walked past the University of Virginia’s iconic Rotunda, and then down a pacific area on the UVa grounds known affectionately as The Lawn.

Chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, the supremacists carried torches that were readily identifiable based on their distinctive features: Tiki-brand torches, manufactured by a Wisconsin-based company called Lamplight. The racist symbolism of the torches and their connection to the Ku Klux Klan was not a coincidence. The purpose was to communicate an odious message, and to intimidate anyone watching.

It’s unlikely that product planners at Lamplight ever developed a use case for this malevolent activity. How could they? An abiding assumption for most marketers – myself included – is that our prospective customers have benign intent for using our products or services. When deciding how many torches to manufacture and where to distribute them, Lamplight probably considers banal matters like economic conditions, leisure trends, and weather patterns – not the number of hate rallies to be held, or how many marchers will participate.

For Lamplight, the prominent role their torches played in the Charlottesville tragedy are what author Nassim Taleb calls Black Swan events – situations that are extremely difficult to predict. The proverbial blind-side tackle. The catastrophe that came out of nowhere. No company should ever be self-satisfied that such things could never happen. Prior to August 11th, few people heard of Lamplight, or its parent company, W. C. Bradley. After that, both became known globally, for all the wrong reasons.

Shortly after the Unite the Right rally video went viral, the company issued the following statement:

“TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”

Marketers and salespeople worship at the revenue altar, and here’s a company that states unequivocally that some revenue is filthy, and they’d rather not have it to augment the “top line.” Kudos to them not only for their morals, but for making them public.

Tiki torches weren’t the only easy-to-identify brand dragged into the supremacist vortex:

New Balance shoes was recognized by a writer for the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer as “the official shoe of white people.”

The Detroit Redwings hockey team had their logo corrupted by the Unite the Right marchers, who modified it only slightly. On August 12, @onelectionday posted a Tweet that would make any marketer break out in a cold sweat:

“Wait a minute…@DetroitRedWings have you sanctioned the use of your logo here or is a copyright infringement suit pending?”

Perry Polo shirts. “The alt-right’s Proud Boys love Fred Perry polo shirts. The feeling is not mutual,” wrote Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post on July 10. Proud Boys describes itself as a “western-chauvinist men’s club” and the distinct Fred Perry [shirt] design helps them “sport a common uniform: black polo shirts trimmed in yellow stripes.”

In the aftermath, all three companies moved quickly with public statements:

“New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hatred in any form…New Balance is a values-driven organization and culture that believes in humanity, integrity, community and mutual respect for people around the world.”

“The Red Wings believe that hockey is for Everyone and we celebrate the diversity of our fan base and our nation . . . We are exploring every possible legal action as it pertains to the misuse of our logo in this disturbing demonstration.”

“No, [Perry Polo shirts doesn’t] support the ideals or the group that you speak of . . . It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with.”

Bad product placement is not a trivial issue. Ubiquitous video cameras and social media have upped the risks for companies. It’s hard to say how long it will take these brands to lose their linkages to heinous events, as others have suffered:

  • White Ford Bronco and OJ Simpson
  • Tic Tacs and the Donald Trump – Access Hollywood video
  • Skittles and Donald Trump Jr.’s statement about Syrian refugees
  • Skittles and the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012

On June 17, 1994, over 95 million people watched livestream coverage of the OJ Simpson chase, but nobody at Ford cheered about the free product placement. Ford stopped selling the Bronco in 1996, though it plans to reintroduce the model in 2020. No doubt, one of the top-of-mind questions at Ford is how many years it will take for the OJ-Bronco connection to dissolve. 2020 probably seemed safe for re-introduction, because in 1996, the core buying demographic for the 2020 either wasn’t yet born, or couldn’t comprehend the news reports. Still, I wonder if white will be among the color choices.

What’s the impact on brands and revenue when products are tied to hate and political controversies? Not good – at least, initially. “When a brand gets involved in political issues, whether accidentally or on purpose, it’s bound to have an impact on how consumers talk about it on social media,” according to a December 12, 2016 AdWeek article, How New Balance, Pepsi and Kellogg’s Were Impacted by Trump Controversies. “Three brands that made headlines due to the election of Donald Trump—New Balance, Pepsi and Kellogg’s—had to deal with negative sentiment on social media as a result.” A research company, Taykey, explored how each incident impacted the brands on social media.

New Balance. In November 2016, consumers protested New Balance when the company’s VP of Public Affairs, Matt LeBretton, spoke about President-elect Trump’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, telling The Wall Street Journal that “things are going to move in the right direction.” Some New Balance customers took umbrage to that endorsement, and protested by posting videos of burning New Balance Shoes. As a result, “brand sentiment declined by 75%,” according to Taykay. “Social conversation volume for New Balance rose by 100% (their biggest conversation-generating event of the year). This conversation was negative, though, and brand sentiment declined by 75 percent.”

Pepsi. Following the US presidential election in 2016, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi said some of her employees were “in mourning” about Trump’s election. Trump loyalists were not pleased with that comment. They announced a boycott of Pepsi products, and launched fake news stories alleging that Nooyi told Trump supporters to “take their business elsewhere.”

“Again, social media conversation volume for Pepsi spiked, but the negative conversation drove social brand sentiment down by 93%, as positive sentiment for Pepsi dropped from 72% to 4.5%, according to Taykey . . . However, since the incident, positive sentiment for the brand has been on the rise.”

Kellogg’s. Compared with Pepsi, Kellogg’s has faced more durable backlash after terminating its advertising on Breitbart, a website popular with white supremacists. Following that action, Breitbart launched a #DumpKelloggs campaign, and encouraged Trump supporters to boycott Kellogg’s products. “The boycott caused Kellogg’s social media sentiment to fall dramatically, with a 75 percent nosedive, according to Taykey. Through Dec. 5, that sentiment had stayed mostly negative.”

Brand managers cannot easily mitigate the risks that their products could become entangled in public controversies. But they can be prepared for what to do when it happens:

  1. Immediately issue a public statement to separates the company, its products, and its brand from the controversy.
  2. Make the statement clear and unequivocal. Do not leave room for other interpretations.
  3. Stick to the brand knitting. Don’t attempt to exploit the controversy to drive sales, or to create related advertising messages. These only serve to solidify negative connections in consumers’ minds.

Tiki torches, New Balance shoes, and Perry Polo shirts were not the only brands to get sullied on August 11th. The University of Virginia did, too. The school’s logo features a simple white outline of its Rotunda surrounded by orange. With its viewpoint from The Lawn, the logo is integral to the UVa brand, and instantly recognizable to UVa alumni. For me, the logo carries meaning beyond the physical building that Thomas Jefferson designed, and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. That enslaved people constructed the building brick-by-brick and board-by-board makes the August events in Charlottesville even more poignant today.

For the time being, I can’t un-see the white supremacist marchers, or stop hearing their hateful chants as they walked past the Rotunda. And I can’t ignore their worldview that we should return to the institutions and society that subjugated human beings, and openly advocated the existence of a “superior race.”

At least in Virginia, many of us have convinced ourselves that Jefferson – who himself enslaved over 220 people – would be reviled at the Unite the Right marchers, and what they stand for. “It is safer to have the whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance,” Jefferson said. For generations, that idea has been woven into UVa’s brand. On August 11th 2017, I suspect Jefferson was twirling in his grave.