Whereas designers and brand managers make decisions to target specific segments of the population, they are always at the behest of consumers to identify and consume their brands and products. What happens, however, when an unintentional—and potentially harmful group—decides to associate themselves with an unsuspecting brand?
Such was the dilemma facing New Balance, a 110-year-old athletic company, when a neo-Nazi blogger declared the brand the “official shoes of white people.” The comments went viral leading to social media outrage where some publicly burned their running shoes in protest. New Balance would later release a statement denouncing hate and bigotry, and highlighting its history of inclusiveness. Still—neo-Nazis were not swayed and suggested that New Balance’s social media accounts were “hacked” in an attempt to disavow the association.
New Balance was just one company dealing with potentially toxic consumers. Food chains Papa John’s and Wendy’s, as well as car company Cadillac and even singer Taylor Swift have all been adopted by neo-Nazis to varying degrees. In this case study, students will be asked to consider the implications of having toxic groups of consumers—those who might alienate other purchasers—claiming ownership of the brand. Further, they will be asked to discuss the moral and business implications of these consumers and create communicative strategies to deal with unwanted attention.