A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 3, 2021

The Reason Brands Have Never Been Easier To Destroy

Social media, globalization, cultural differences, evolving mores, intentional brand hijacking for affect and, most of all, that personal expression has become political, all combine to make brands subject to forces which are able to impact their meaning and value. JL

Ben Schott reports in Bloomberg:

Half a century after the phrasethe personal is political,” C-suites are realizing that “branding” is now inextricably both. The pervasiveness of cross-border value chains means no brands are immune from the hazards of global logistical, political and cultural displacement. Hijacked by hate groups (New Balance), Declassification (Burberry), the passage of time (Aunt Jemima), China (McDonalds). As “culture wars” intensify, every brand is just a Tweet away from displacement.  It was the “Agua!” heard round the world. During a press conference at the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, the Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo slid away two bottles of promotional Coca-Cola before exhorting us all to drink water.
Within minutes the internet was ablaze: Ronaldo’s mischief had derailed a 32-year sponsorship, slashed $4 billion off Coca-Cola’s market value and forced a Coke spokesman to admit that “everyone is entitled to their drink preferences.”
Within days Manuel Locatelli had reenacted Ronaldo’s stunt in Italian, and Paul Pogba (a Muslim teetotaler) had banished to the floor a bottle of (alcohol-free) Heineken.

Welcome to the world of product displacement — the challenge confronting companies across the globe given our polarized politics, immersive branding and bellicose (social) media … to say nothing of influencer power. Coca-Cola has 2.8 million Instagram followers; Ronaldo has 309 million.

If product placement uses context to augment and amplify a brand’s values, product displacement is when context perverts or destroys them. 

Thus, 007 drives an Aston, wears Omega and quaffs Bolly — but Apple bans Bond baddies from appearing on screen with iPhones.

* * *

Part I — The Drivers of Displacement

Hating in Plain Sight

The most immediate threat of product displacement is when a brand is hijacked by hate.

Early examples include the Ku Klux Klan’s irreligious appropriation of the Christian cross, and the Nazi party’s literal and ideological twisting of the Eurasian swastika — which had earlier been used by brands such as Carslberg, Coca-Cola and the United States Army.

More recently, a roster of household names have found themselves the target of “hatejacking.”

In the 1980s the Italian label Stone Island was one of many fashion brands (including Fila, Kappa, Diadora and Sergio Tacchini) taken up by British football hooligans. In 2006 the British sporting brand Lonsdale was appropriated by German neo-Nazis who discovered that careful adjustment of a jacket zipper framed the letters “NSDA” — which almost spell the initials of the Nazi party (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei). And in the 2010s, Ralph Lauren shirts were adopted by Mexico’s “disaffected youth” eager to copy the “Narco Polo” stylings of violent drug traffickers. 

New Balance has been hatejacked twice: first in 2008 by German neo-fascists who claimed the brand’s logotype “N” stood for Nazi; and then in 2016 when the Daily Stormer called it “the official brand of the Trump Revolution” and “the official shoes of White people.” 

Even Taylor Swift was unwittingly dragged into the mire when in 2016, as Vice reported, the alt-right hailed her as an “Aryan Goddess.”

The latest high-profile hatejack victim is Fred Perry which — alongside labels like Dr. Martens and Ben Sherman — has a complex history with sub-cultures on the left and right of fashion, music and protest. While such “edge brands” might once have been able to shrug off (or tacitly accept) far-fringe support, the current climate is much less forgiving. This explains why, in September 2020, after its laurel wreath icon was hijacked by the Proud Boys, Fred Perry halted North American sales of its “black/yellow/yellow twin tipped shirt” and reiterated its support of “inclusivity, diversity and independence”

“To be absolutely clear, if you see any Proud Boys materials or products featuring our Laurel Wreath or any Black/Yellow/Yellow related items, they have absolutely nothing to do with us, and we are working with our lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of our brand.

Hatejacking comes in three forms — accidental, overt and deniable — all of which were evident at the 2017 neo-fascist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here, the accidental victim was the 60-year-old Tiki Brand which manufactures the bamboo torches that were brandished in emulation of Klan and Nazi rallies. The overt victim was the Detroit Red Wings, whose “winged wheel” logo was bastardized with the “black sun” icon expropriated by Hitler’s SS. And the deniable victim was the calculatedly unthreatening “Gap aesthetic” of polo shirts and khakis (“the new uniform of white supremacy”) — which may have influenced President Donald Trump’s fever dream that the rally had “very fine people, on both sides.”

Of this hatejack trio, deniability is emerging as the tactic of choice — because it evades responsibility, trolls the media, “owns the libs” and relentlessly destabilizes the debate. 

The epitome of deniability is the perversion of the “OK” hand signal into an emblem of “white power” which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, was a ruse plotted in 2017 by a member of the message board 4chan:

“We must flood Twitter and other social media websites … claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy”

What began as a sick hoax quickly morphed into sicker reality, with white-power “OK” signs flashed not only at far-right rallies but also by military recruits, school kids, extremist politicians and terrorists like the one who, in 2019, murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It’s not by chance that the alt-right targets innocent brands and unlikely icons — Pepe the Frog, the Harlem Shake, Trash Doves, Hawaiian shirts, Cookie Monster, drinking milk. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed in 1946:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”

Of course, progressive causes have also long understood the power of (re)appropriation — from disability groups reclaiming the slur “crip” to gay-rights activists wearing the Nazi’s “pink triangle.” Indeed opposing factions will likely tussle with increasing fervor over the ownership of powerful symbols — from transgender rights activists using the purple, white and green of the British Suffragettes, to anti-vaxxers in the U.S., Britain, Germany and Israel wearing yellow Stars of David to assert parallels between (mandatory) vaccination and the Holocaust.



Whereas hatejacking poses an acute reputational threat, brands also risk slow-burn displacement when adopted by the “wrong class” of mainstream consumer. The posterchild for such déclasséfication is the British fashion label Burberry which, in the early 2000s, found its trademark check overwhelmed by fakes and overtaken by “chavs” — a pejorative term for a strand of brash, urban working-class whites. 

Burberry responded by buying back third-party licenses, limiting the use of its “chav check,” centralizing manufacture and design, emphasizing its British heritage, embracing digital culture, raising its prices, reducing its product line, and enrolling celebrities like Emma Watson, Cara Delevingne and Romeo Beckham. 

Gucci’s response to knockoff merch was somewhat simpler: a capsule collection of “FAKE/NOT” branded luggage and clothing intended as “a playful commentary on the idea of imitation.”

Other brands that have fought the forces of déclasséfication include Soho House which, in 2010, stripped the membership of several hundred “uncool” bankers; Patagonia which, in 2019, stopped embroidering finance company logos onto the vests and jackets beloved of braying finance bros; and Stella Artois which has long attempted to shake off its binge drinking reputation and “wife beater” nickname.

For decades a different form of déclasséfication has confronted Toyota — whose SUVs and pickups (the “modern-day cavalry for the third-world”) have become synonymous with warlords and terrorists from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. (The final phase of the 1978–1987 Chad-Libyan conflict was nicknamed the “Great Toyota War.”) Of course, the popularity of Hilux and Land Cruisers as paramilitary “technicals” in the most terrifying warzones cuts both ways. As one Toyota dealer admitted to the New York Times in 2001:

“It is not our proudest piece of product placement. But it shows the Taliban are looking for the same qualities as any other truck buyer: quality and durability.”


You Do It to Yourself  

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” Michael Kinsley’s timeless political aphorism is equally relevant to product displacement — as Gerald Ratner discovered in 1991 when a true word spoken in jest very nearly bankrupted his retail jewelry empire.

In 2006, when the Economist asked the managing director of Roederer, Frederic Rouzaud, whether the “bling lifestyle” of rappers was hurting Cristal champagne, he replied:

“That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”

In 2013, the founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, resigned as chairman after stating that some of his company’s clothes “don’t work for certain women’s bodies.” And in 2014, Mike Jeffries stepped down as CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch — in part due to the resurfacing of comments he made to Salon in 2006:

“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Such gaffe-driven self-immolation clearly derives from the contempt some executives feel toward sections of their clientele. However, in today’s political climate, expressing personal principles or ideological allegiances can have a similarly destructive effect. 

In 2013, the chairman of the Italian pasta giant Barilla, Guido Barilla, sparked an immediate boycott by declaring:

“I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them.”

In January 2020, the CEO of Goya, Robert Unanue, claimed that Donald Trump was “the real, legitimate and still actual president of the United States” — a statement both false, and seemingly at odds with Goya’s proud Hispanic history, employee base and customer profile. As a member of Goya’s board told New York Post:

“Bob does not speak for Goya Foods when he speaks on TV … The family has diverse views on politics, but politics is not part of our business. Our political point of views are irrelevant.”

And in June 2020, co-founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, quit as CEO after telling gym owners in a private call obtained by Buzzfeed, “We’re not mourning for George Floyd; I don’t think me or any of my staff are,” before seeming to make light of Mr Floyd’s murder in a Tweet

When Time compiled its 2010 ranking of the “Top 10 CEO Scandals” every one involved fraudulent misconduct or sexual impropriety; an equivalent list covering the decade since would likely track very different themes.


O tempora, o mores!

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
 The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley

The subtlest driver of product displacement is the passage of time, and brands lucky enough to span generations must respond to generational change — or be judged accordingly. 

The rebranding of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Eskimo Pies, Land O’ Lakes, Cream of Wheat, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Mutual of Omaha, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians in the wake of George Floyds’ murder was certainly notable, but hardly surprising. Indeed the greatest surprise was the decision to cling for so long to identities that were as archaic as they are offensive. Of course, history’s inexorable march means the threat of displacement evolves. In 2001, for instance, the British marmalade company Robertson’s dropped the deeply insulting “golliwog” mascot it had used for 91 years.

Bizarrely, Robertson’s denied its rebrand was a response to racism (“for the vast majority of people, the Golly is a positive thing that they like”), complaining instead that the public simply didn’t recognize its profoundly racist mascot. Then, having only reluctantly relinquished the “Golly,” Robertson’s rushed to the unimpeachable safety of Roald Dahl characters like Willy Wonka and the Big Friendly Giant. 

But even Dahl proved dodgy. In 2018, the British Royal Mint rejected proposals to strike a commemorative coin of the author because of his anti-Semitism (“Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason”) — views for which his family apologized in 2020. Robertson’s current mascot is the marmalade obsessive Paddington Bear, who is considered a “case study of immigration and otherness” — despite the questionable backstory of “Darkest Peru.”

Small World

“No brand is an island, entire of itself; every brand is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
 With apologies to John Donne

The near-universal pervasion of cross-border value chains means that almost no brands are immune from the hazards of global logistical, political and cultural displacement.

Logistically, brands are answerable not only for their own (in)actions, but the (in)actions of every third-party contractor, supplier, investor and employee down the line. This creates a tangle of legal and ethical tripwires — human trafficking, poverty pay, working conditions, waste and pollution, corporate taxation, sanctions busting, data protection — that can ensnare even the most wily, or well-intentioned.

In 2016, for instance, when Tesla was alleged to benefit from cheap sub-contracted labor, Elon Musk tweeted: “Only heard about this today. Sounds like the wrong thing happened on many levels. Will investigate and make it right.” And, in 2020, when Channel 4 alleged that Nespresso had employed Guatemalan child labor, a personal response was issued by the coffee brand’s ambassador, George Clooney.

Politically, brands increasingly find themselves at the pinch point between globalism and nationalism — from the “America First” rhetoric of Donald Trump (who criticized so many companies, a bot was developed to short the stocks he insulted), to the strong-arm tactics of Alexander Lukashenko (who grounded a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident journalist). 

The sleepless giant in this room, for the West at least, is China, whose clout is so colossal that companies must defer to Beijing, or suffer the consequences. To take just three examples from the rapidly expanding roll call of Sino-corporate humiliations: McDonald’s apologized after an Egg McMuffin advertisement disrespected China’s “territorial integrity” with a fleeting glimpse of the word “Taiwan”; Zara apologized for appearing to support pro-democracy protests when four of its 14 Hong Kong stores opened late due to transit delays; and Mercedes-Benz apologized for the “hurt and grief” it caused the Chinese people by quoting these words of the Dalai Lama. 

“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”

Back in the day, the greatest geo-cultural threat most brands faced was a trademark that got lost in translation: Barf detergent, Darkie toothpaste, Pee cola, Nonce Finance. True, there were some notable (and noble) exceptions — not least the “Look at the Label” campaign against apartheid South Africa. And a few were early to advertising agit-prop — notoriously, Oliviero Toscani’s work for Benetton which provoked legal challenges and publisher boycotts around the world.

Now, as the “culture wars” intensify, every brand is just a Tweet away from cultural displacement — whether it’s Comme des Garçons fitting white models with cornrow wigs; Anthropologie, Patowl and Zara appropriating indigenous Mexican design; or Michael B. Jordan co-opting the traditions of Trinidad and Tobago by naming his rum brand J’Ouvert.

Moreover, brands that flaunt their progressive values only in liberal markets need to remember that the World Wide Web is indeed worldwide — as @Khyberman noted during this year’s Pride month.

Stuff Happens

Even brands fortunate enough to evade hatejacking, déclasséfication, self-immolation, time’s arrow and the tripwires of globalization must still react to “events.”

Not simply the ever-more crowded calendar of celebrations and commemorations …

Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27), Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Earth Day (April 22), Mental Health Awareness Month (May), Pride Month (June), Mandela Day (July 18), Black Business Month (August), World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), Movember (November), World AIDS day (December 1) — to name but a few

… but the ever-accelerating ricochet of incidents that “demand” a corporate response.

The outrage following George Floyd’s murder didn’t simply topple a rogues’ gallery of racist mascots, it put global executives under unprecedented pressure — from customers, employees and the media — to react. 

For some brands (Nike, Netflix) posting a black square to Instagram aligned seamlessly with their values; for others (John Deere, Harley Davidson) it felt like a moment of bravery; and for the rest it was an incident like any other, to be acknowledged briefly (Gillette, Porsche), or ignored (Samsung, Ford).

The problem is, events never end. 

Should those brands that marked “Blackout Tuesday” also post a yellow square to protest hate crimes against Asians? Or a blue square denouncing anti-Semitism? Or a black-and-white selfie to celebrate female empowerment? 

And is solidarity on the socials enough?

Should brands like Krispy Kreme and Tinder sponsor Covid vaccinations? Should companies like Best Buy and Nextdoor give their staff time off to vote? Should brands promote gender neutrality or preferred pronouns? Should brands take positions on divisive issues like Brexit, climate change, gun control, trans rights or immigration?

And what does it mean if they don’t? 

When in April hundreds of American CEOs signed a letter opposing “discriminatory” voting laws, the New York Times pored over the names to discover who had not added their support.

To mark none, one, or just some events invites, at the very least, invidious comparisons. In 2020, Starbucks was lambasted for banning staff from wearing Black Lives Matter apparel, even as it distributed Gay Pride shirts. 

* * * 

Identity Heft

At its core, product displacement is a commercial expression of the “irresistible force paradox”:

What happens when an immovable object (a brand that has spent titanic sums of treasure and time to become part of our identities) meets an irresistible force (the accelerating and amplifying imperatives of identity politics)?

As Fred Astaire observed, “something’s gotta give.”

Exactly what gives, however, cannot easily be predicted or planned for. Nor are displacement events necessarily rational. Within minutes of Ronaldo’s advocacy of water, for instance, the internet had uncovered his earlier ad for Coke. Half a century after Carol Hanisch popularized the phrase “the personal is political,” C-suites are realizing that “branding” is now inextricably both.


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