Brand managers are the protectors of their respective brands. Companies go to great lengths to protect their investment in the brand and the equity built over years of careful marketing by closely monitoring the associations made and the company the brand keeps. While brand ambassadors or affiliating one’s brand with a particular event or entity can be an effective promotion tool, it is always one to be taken with great caution.
Anything that can incidentally taint one’s brand — a misstep or scandal on the part of a brand spokesperson or proximity to a scandal — can undo years of careful curating. Particularly with brands that have a presence with children and families, part of the equity that is built over years is trust.
Several brands raised eyebrows when they initially agreed to join the administration’s advisory committee. While the common belief was that they were motivated by the desire to be part of the committee that could potentially advise the president in their favor and help the economy from an inside position, many viewed their participation with a controversial new president with great suspicion.
At every controversial stance or statement from the president — his divisive comments on Muslims and Mexicans, his push for the travel ban, discussions of eliminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — their participation was viewed with even greater judgement. It seemed that each White House controversy made it more difficult to justify their participation.
This weekend’s vague support from the president of the KKK and white nationalist groups that marched in Charlottesville, Va. and then his doubling down with more direct support delivered in an emotional rant in which he equivocated the racist groups with the counter protesters marching for peace, became too much for any brand to bear.
The murder of an innocent counter-protestor by a man in town for the march made the incident even more appalling. It does not take a Ph.D. in marketing to realize that aligning one’s brand with the KKK and white nationalist groups is not good business. Responsible brand shepherds had no choice but to leave the president’s advisory committee.
At this point, consumers are keenly aware of which brands left the committee, when they left (before or after it was disbanded) and what their stated reasoning was (a vague, safe excuse that refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the president’s part or a statement of their unwillingness to be associated with such alignment with racism).
Brands can survive association with a certain amount of scandal or controversy, depending on the brand, the makeup of its core customer base and the nature of the scandal. It is up to the brand team to determine consumers’ limits. However, there are some scandals that are far too distasteful for a brand to remain aligned with.
Even a brand like Nike stood by partner Kobe Bryant as he faced rape and sodomy charges and, given their consumer base, was able to maintain the brand association. These most recent sentiments expressed by the president, however, are so universally unacceptable and distasteful, and it was handled so poorly and unapologetically, that many brands had to flee, and the council disbanded to save the others from having to make the same decision.
When it comes to espousing and defending racist, white-nationalist views, no rationalization about influencing favorable economic decisions for companies or “working from the inside” to affect change is enough to justify these CEOs’ participation with this president. As they are now acutely aware, their brand’s future is in their hands and consumers are watching more closely than ever to see where they stand.
Marlene Towns is a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.