When a bad thing happens to a good brand.

by Isadora

Last month, the New York Times released this not very useful (but entertaining) piece of news: “Since 2000, more than 100 people who have been suspects or persons of interest in connection with serious crimes in New York City wore Yankees apparel at the time of the crimes or at the time of their arrest or arraignment.”

This reminded me of the time when I worked for a Cable TV operator. The company had an informal policy of not distributing gifts with its brands on it. That was after several incidents where the main suspect of a crime was featured on TV wearing one of the brands they represented… A kidnaper wearing a ‘Cartoon Network” cap, or a T-shirt with the “ESPN” logo on it. Every brand manager’s worst nightmare.

But what if people you don’t want associated with your brand are purchasing your product? There’s not much you can do about that. A few years ago, Burberry got in deep trouble when its signature pattern was adopted en masse by chavs. Chavs everywhere were seen wearing not only the cap, but covering everything they could find with the Burberry pattern, devaluing the brand. Eventually, the association of the brand with “people behaving badly” became so widespread, pubs and clubs across the UK were banning customers dressed in the label.
Burberry responded by removing the checked baseball caps from sale and reducing the use of the trademark pattern in their products. The company continues to launch über-stylish, pricey and exclusive collections to get its groove back. It is also cracking down on the counterfeit market and suing companies that use the exclusive check pattern for copyright infringement.

Burberry is still on the road to recovery. It’s taking the company a lot of time and money to reverse the ‘curse of the chavs”. Can this be avoided by other brands? I am not sure. Let’s say a brand is extremely successful with creating a product or image that resonates with consumers. They can pretty much be a victim of their own success, if segments of the market they don’t want to be associated with (e.g. criminals) decide to adopt it.

The Burberry case is an extreme example of bad publicity hurting a brand. How about the Yanquees? Other that Red Sox fans that sure had a chuckle on this, probably not many people found the NY Times article of any use. The Yankees simply sell more branded merchandise than any other sports franchise. It’s highly likely that a share of the public buying their stuff operates on the wrong side of the law. But that’s still a funny sound bite that might take a while to go away. And a reason not to wear your Yankees cap to meet your future in laws, if any is needed.


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