Brand owners use product placement and sponsorship deals to create positive brand associations in the mind of their target consumers. James Bond can wear their brand of luxury watch or drive their car in a spectacular car chase scene. But what happens when a brand is shown in a context that will draw an undesirable or negative association? In 2011, three examples demonstrate the issues that can be caused when a brand is used or worn in an undesirable context:
- On 16 August 2011, US clothing brand Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) offered Jersey Shore's Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino a substantial sum of money to stop wearing A&F clothing. In a press release (available here), A&F expressed its deep concern that The Situation's "association with our brand could cause significant damages to our image."
- Media reports have alleged that the August 2011 London riots were "powered by Blackberry", with Blackberry Messenger (BBM) being the "weapon of choice" for disaffected young youths.
- Anders Breivik, a Norwegian mass murderer who admitted to killing 77 people in the Norwegian gun attacks in July 2011, has been photographed wearing Lacoste clothing on his trips out of prison. Lacoste contacted Norwegian police to request that Anders be prevented from wearing the brand, fearing that it could do considerable harm to their reputation.
When faced with a negative brand association, one option for brand owners is to enter into a contract with the person wearing the brand, requiring them to no longer wear that brand. If the trademark appears in movies or TV shows, a second option is to require that the trade mark be removed or blurred. For example, in 2008, the director of Slumdog Millionaire was asked to remove any Mercedes logos from slum scenes in the movie.
But how do you stop an undesirable association when it involves a section of the population? I am reminded of the Burberry episode a few years ago. Known as an upper-class luxury brand, the Burberry check was adopted by a completely different consumer group to their target audience. The lower socio-economic “chav” culture began to wear Burberry, in particular the baseball caps. Fake Burberry goods were sold everywhere. To combat this negative association, Burberry removed all of their checked baseball caps from sale and removed the distinctive check from many of their products.
Yet, sometimes a negative association can bring attention to brands in beneficial ways. The media reports about the use of Blackberries have drawn attention to the affordability of Blackberry and the free messaging service provided by BBM. The media flurry that has resulted from A&F's announcement has certainly drawn attention to the brand among their target consumer group, teenagers, leading many to suggest the action was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Brands spend millions developing their reputation to attract a target market. The potential for brand damage caused by these sorts of negative associations defies the old saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity”.