Misadventures in Branding

Companies, particularly those peddling luxury items, spend billions of dollars, euros, pounds, yen, and more recently, renminbi, on branding efforts. Market research accounts for some of this cost. Advertising factors in as well. Some companies spend money, often a significant amount of it, on brand ambassadors who represent the type of consumer the brand would like to appeal to. We would assume that none of these statements will come as a surprise to any of our readers despite (because of?) the fact that many of them have likely fallen prey to such efforts themselves. This could lead some to wonder what the point is.

Brand ambassadors, though not cheap, can be very effective. But
you already knew that, didn't you?

The point is this: Although some things in life seem obvious it is often the case that current events have a way of placing otherwise trite observations in a new perspective. In the past week, a nationwide riot and a hit TV show have done just that, reminding us all that despite best efforts, sometimes the branding strategies described above can go wrong.

In our first example, photos from the last week made it clear that, in addition to balaclavas and sunglasses, 'swooshes, stripes and leaping wildcats' were de rigueur uniform items for looters in the recent English riots. One would imagine that the owners of these marks, namely Nike, Adidas and Puma, were not completely happy with this fact, particularly once it became noted so widely in the press. If so, it would not be shocking to see some of these brands attempt to reposition eventually, a la Burberry after that company nearly became indelibly associated with hooligan culture in the 1980's and '90s.

Then again, as noted in the article linked to above, these companies often purposefully associate themselves with the very types of people that the looting demographic might idolize, including rappers and athletes with less than spotless records. Maybe they aren't so upset about a little extra publicity noting how 'edgy' their brands are after all. Indeed, and although most commentators we have seen haven't leapt to this conclusion, perhaps this isn't a misadventure in branding as suggested by the title of our post so much as a success story. Of course one would be hard-pressed to get representatives of any of these publicly traded companies to admit joy at becoming the uniform of choice among rioters in the aftermath of the event...

However even if there is any room for doubt where casual athletic goods are involved our second example certainly represents a case of branding gone wrong. Abercrombie & Fitch strives to be an 'aspirational' brand. It prices its goods at a certain level, advertises its brand a certain way, and generally carries on its business in a manner that supports this strategy.

At one level it seems to have succeeded in its positioning strategy as that most aspirational of individuals, Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino has become a huge fan of the brand, often wearing its clothing on the show that made him famous, Jersey Shore. However despite earning a reported $5 million last year, The Situation does not apparently fit A&F's idea of aspirational; a recent statement by the company stated that it is prepared make a 'substantial payment' to Sorrentino if he will stop wearing its clothing. After reading this, we immediately drafted a plan to be filmed wearing several aspirational brands while doing objectionable things, but ultimately decided that the cost benefit didn't measure up for us.

In any case, the two situations (no pun intended) should offer some food for thought for brand managers everywhere. Overhead, whether for payroll or advertising, becomes more dear in a recessionary environment. In that context, companies need to constantly consider the impact that their associations with demographics have on sales, whether for better or for worse...

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