New Balance sprint from 'white people' shoes tag spotlights PR dilemma

Athletic shoe company New Balance continues to endure a public relations backlash after a company executive's perceived pro-Donald Trump comments were embraced by a white supremacist blogger who deemed their shoes "the official shoes of white people."

In response, the U.S.-based private company is blanketing social media with statements that it "does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form."

The situation highlights the landmines that companies face in a post-election marketplace with a divided constituency of consumers. With the nation's voting population split down the center, a company taking a political stand, either intentionally or inadvertently, risks alienating nearly half of its potential customer base. And the speed in which kerfuffles spread over social media can increase the damage caused by a public relations slip-up or misunderstanding.

"How do brands navigate a hyper-polarized political world?" said Matthew Quint, director of the Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. "It’s going to be a very interesting and tricky thing."

New Balance's situation is reminiscent of Chick-fil-A after its president, Dan Cathy, in 2012 said the company opposed same-sex marriage. "That stigma has stuck with Chick-fil-A. You will still get heated responses about that," said Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Complicating the issue is New Balance's mention of Trump by name, Towns said, which some consumers can take as a sign that "I’m OK with misogyny, sexism and racism or whatever, because it helps my business."

New Balance found itself in the middle of controversy after Matthew LeBretton, the company's vice president of public affairs, told The Wall Street Journal the day after the presidential election that “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and, frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction."

Athletic shoe company New Balance continues to endure a public relations backlash after a company executive's perceived pro-Donald Trump comments were embraced by a white supremacist blogger who deemed their shoes "the official shoes of white people."

In response, the U.S.-based private company is blanketing social media with statements that it "does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form."

The situation highlights the landmines that companies face in a post-election marketplace with a divided constituency of consumers. With the nation's voting population split down the center, a company taking a political stand, either intentionally or inadvertently, risks alienating nearly half of its potential customer base. And the speed in which kerfuffles spread over social media can increase the damage caused by a public relations slip-up or misunderstanding.

"How do brands navigate a hyper-polarized political world?" said Matthew Quint, director of the Columbia Business School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership. "It’s going to be a very interesting and tricky thing."

New Balance's situation is reminiscent of Chick-fil-A after its president, Dan Cathy, in 2012 said the company opposed same-sex marriage. "That stigma has stuck with Chick-fil-A. You will still get heated responses about that," said Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Complicating the issue is New Balance's mention of Trump by name, Towns said, which some consumers can take as a sign that "I’m OK with misogyny, sexism and racism or whatever, because it helps my business."

New Balance found itself in the middle of controversy after Matthew LeBretton, the company's vice president of public affairs, told The Wall Street Journal the day after the presidential election that “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and, frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction."

Supporters of the President-elect joined in, too. "Liberals are now burning shoes after a statement from New Balance. I'm ordering my first pair," one tweeted.

The situation percolated to another level after white supremacist website The Daily Stormer added its support to New Balance for "making a gesture to support white people and to support U.S. manufacturing," site publisher Andrew Anglin wrote. "We need to support that. I see New Balances now becoming the official shoes of white people."

New Balance had already posted statements on social media in an attempt to distance itself from the white supremacist site.

"New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form," read a statement released Monday that was posted on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. "One of our officials was recently asked to comment on a trade policy that was taken out of context.  As a 110-year old company with five factories in the U.S. and thousands of employees worldwide from all races, genders, cultures and sexual orientations, New Balance is a values-driven organization and culture that believes in humanity, integrity, community and mutual respect for people around the world."

Meanwhile, the company continues "to correct the inaccuracies that were reported and to present what our brand truly stands for," said Mary Lawton, New Balance's global public relations manager.

So far, New Balance has "done the right thing," Quint said. But it faces uncertainty in regards to the alt-right — a loose affiliation of activist groups supporting white nationalism and reject mainstream conservatism, especially online — and whether it continues to hold up New Balance as a brand that it supports, he says. "There is less control in what those sites will choose to have stick around and bring back up or highlight in ways that are disingenuous and may linger for your brand," Quint said.

New Balance may be faced with making a decision — and a bigger public statement — about where it stands to avoid a long-lasting sting, Towns says. If the company doesn't make a bigger denouncement of the white supremacist issue, New Balance stands to "lose their multicultural Millennial global sneaker-head base," she said.

By doing that, even if they make it clear that they were anti-TPP and not pro-Trump — or even anti-Trump — New Balance still runs the risk of alienating Trump and suffering "his Twitter backlash," Towns said. "They have a decision to make."


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