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When Brands Are Adopted by Bigots

Brands adopted by bigots

Last month, The Richards Group was dropped by major clients, including Motel 6, Home Depot, and Keurig Dr Pepper, after racially intolerant bigoted remarks from founder Stan Richards. The 87-year-old, who founded the ad agency in 1976 and even has an advertising school named after him, was reported to have rejected a Motel 6 ad idea for being “too Black,” citing concerns that it would alienate the motel chain’s “white supremacist constituents.”

Richards has since stepped down and apologized for his comments, but the damage is done. Beyond the incident exposing the ignorance of leadership in the industry, it also brings to light a concern for brands who may—seemingly helplessly—become intertwined with bigotry. In a modern society where customers are holding organizations to higher moral standards, what do you do when your brand is adopted by bigots as part of their identity?

While Motel 6 would fervently reject the notion that they cater to white supremacists, there is an implied truth to the association if their own ad agency sees and acknowledges the connection. Still, even if that connection was not dominant in the public consciousness, the media storm that covered it certainly advanced the association.

A brand’s image is subject to external opinions and behaviors of others—factors that are out of our control.

This issue stems from the fact that a brand is ultimately a culmination of what is purposefully expressed, as well as how it is perceived and shared by outside actors. As marketers, we do our best to communicate the story of a brand as clearly as possible, but at the end of the day, a brand’s image is also subject to the external opinions and behaviors of others—factors that are out of our control.

It is not uncommon for these uncontrollable factors to be misaligned with a brand’s intent. An organization or company may start off with an ideal customer in mind only to discover that a different segment is responding better to their offer. Depending on the values and goals of the brand, they may decide to shift focus to this new customer or make internal strategic changes in order to recapture their original target.

However, as with Motel 6, there are cases where this shift in customer takes a particularly sinister turn, and a brand becomes publicly associated with things it may not want, such as bigotry or violent extremism.

brand adopted by bigots

Fred Perry is another recent example. At its start, the British preppy streetwear brand was a popular staple in working-class, multicultural neighborhoods. However, it has since been co-opted by far-right groups. Fred Perry’s yellow and black polos featuring its laurel symbol has become the unofficial uniform of the self-proclaimed “proud Western chauvinist” Proud Boys. The brand is also strongly associated with racist skinheads. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s glossary on the extremist group lists Fred Perry as a “Brand of sport shirts often favored by skinheads,” further confirming this connection.

Other brands have suffered similar adoptions. In 2016, New Balance was endorsed by white supremacist website The Daily Stormer as the “Official Shoes of White People” after the brand’s VP of Public Affairs stated that President Trump’s victory was good for business.

In the early 2000s, Lonsdale, a British sportswear brand, became popular with neo-Nazi gangs after they had discovered that its items could be worn in a way so that only NSDA was visible, serving as a kind of homage to the Nazi Party or National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (NSDAP). The brand association became so strong that the term “Lonsdale youth” was used to describe these gangs and the commercial brand eventually faced bans from various schools, bars, and retailers in Germany and the Netherlands.

How brands respond

In the situations above, being embraced by bigots was not the fault of the brand. However, this doesn’t mean brands are helpless in the face of these inadvertent adoptions or associations.

Frustrated by the fervent adoption of their black and yellow polo by the Proud Boys, Fred Perry released a statement in late September denouncing any affiliation with the far-right, neo-fascist group. They also declared that they would no longer sell the polos in the US and Canada until they’re satisfied that the association has ended.

While their response is certainly a step up from New Balance’s (the shoe brand took to Twitter with a simple post decrying bigotry and “hate in any form”), it’s hard to say that Fred Perry’s actions were enough or even the best move they could make.

In reality, depriving a group of a desired item often increases that item’s value. Those who own the black and yellow polos will treasure them even more now, with the clear backlash strengthening the tie between their Proud Boy identity and the shirt. Plus, in today’s well-connected world, these groups will simply turn to other markets to get their fix. After all, we’ve already seen reports of Proud Boys in the U.K. mass-buying the shirts and sending them to their U.S. counterparts.

Beyond simply denouncing bigotry, brands need to have their actions show support for the values that they believe in.

Beyond simply denouncing bigotry or subjecting bigots to deprivation, brands need to have their actions show support for the values that they believe in. While no one can fully control how they are perceived, they can control how their values and stories are expressed. More importantly, when that expression of values is clear and consistent—through both words and actions—the likelihood of those values being perceived accurately on the outside will increase.

For brands who find themselves dealing with an unwanted, high-profile customer base, this means boldly and unapologetically articulating its ideals in opposition to that segment. Action is required. Fred Perry, as an example, might present public campaigns that embrace the things they stand for that separate their identity or politics from that of the Proud Boys—a campaign highlighting multiculturalism, feminism, or support for the LGBTQ+ community would allow them to assert a different position from that of their unwanted fan group and thus begin to reclaim their brand.

In fact, that is exactly what Lonsdale did when it became popular with racist skinheads. In addition to refusing to work with retailers known to be frequented by neo-Nazis, the brand ran an ad campaign with the slogan “Lonsdale Loves All Colours” that featured non-white models, which prompted anti-racist, anti-supremacy groups to co-opt the brand in protest of bigotry. It has since also been an active sponsor of events and campaigns that serve the immigrant and LGBTQ+ community. Today, the brand has largely managed to shed its negative associations.

The discovery of an unintended following is not always unfortunate, but when a brand ends up being loved and publicly associated with the identity of groups whose influence and values are in clear opposition to the essence of the brand, there is arguably a strong moral obligation to refuse to cater to or tolerate such groups for the sake of profit. While the actions of others are largely uncontrollable, brands can reclaim themselves through bold action driven by clearly defined core values.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

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