By Michael Stone, chairman and co-founder of Beanstalk and author of, ‘The Power of Licensing: Harnessing Brand Equity’
His recent bizarre behavior and antisemitic comments cost Kanye West (who goes by Ye) his collaborations and licenses with Adidas, Gap, Balenciaga and Peloton, among other business partnerships, and derailed his aspirations to become a fashion empire. (Why he wasn’t punished for his prior anti-Black remarks is a complicated issue.) These companies have publicly stated that they will not tolerate this kind of hate speech and, importantly, neither will their consumers. West has not apologized and, instead, has double downed. But would saying “I’m sorry” be enough? I truly doubt it. He has crossed a line and it will take years and lots of mea culpas to recover, if he ever can. Sometimes brands and consumers can be forgiving, but sometimes they are not. A line can be crossed from which there is no return. Sometimes, when companies and consumers have the opportunity to inflict punishment, they will inflict it.
It seems that every day we are subjected to bad behavior by a public figure, politician or celebrity and the quick mea culpa. We live in a time when we demand transparency and accountability. Social media spreads information about the misdeed as well as the apology. As Jessica Bennett wrote in The New York Times earlier this year, “It can feel these days that we are swimming in a sea of ostensible contrition…Everyone is sorry, yet at the same time, no one’s apology feels like enough.” But when are these bad actors actually held accountable? Where are the red lines? And who delivers the punishment, if any? What happens to the brand partnerships or product lines of celebrities who have offended us in some way, large or small, is illustrative. Who gets a pass and who doesn’t? And why?
When a celebrity becomes a brand
Celebrities like to talk about their “brand.” Yet few are truly brands. Is Tom Hanks a brand? Is Meryl Streep a brand? Both are great actors. Both are very prolific in their work and represent a diversity of roles. But are they brands like Oreo cookies is a brand? How would you describe the Tom Hanks brand? The Meryl Streep brand? You can’t describe them because they are not brands. They are celebrities. They are actors. They are artists. But they are not brands. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t become brands. Consider Kathy Ireland in the home category and Jaclyn Smith in fashions. And then there’s Paul Newman in the food category. Each has parlayed his or her original celebrity fame into a recognizable, comprehensive line of products with market staying power. (See, The Power of Licensing: Harnessing Brand Equity, by Michael Stone, Ankerwyck Press, 2018, page 173).
When a celebrity does become a branded line of consumer goods or collaborates with a brand, they are giving that brand, consumers and retailers the power. The power to punish the celebrity when they don’t like what the celebrity says or does – or, if there is an apology, don’t consider an apology enough – by rejecting the products or the brand entirely. And, despite the fact that consumers can be surprisingly forgiving, they do sometimes wield that sword. Punishment is generally swift and has been inflicted numerous times when the red lines are crossed. Consumers have expectations of brands associated with a celebrity and also expect that retailers will make prompt decisions when celebrities represented by products on the retailer’s floor (or website) step out of line, step over the red line. Everyone is connected – celebrity, consumer, brand and retailer – and each has some degree of power in the relationship.
The marketplace speaks
When public personas run afoul of public opinion and popular or entrenched social movements, the marketplace often speaks. And this is not a new phenomenon. Kathy Lee Gifford lost her apparel collection at Walmart in 2003 (over $700 million in sales) because it was revealed that sweatshops in Central America were used to manufacture her licensed products. That ended her branded product run. Celebrity chef Paula Deen took a well-deserved hit after her racist remarks went public in 2013. Deen’s show was dropped by The Food Network and most of her licensing partners called it quits. They have not returned. During Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, brands, retailers and licensees associated with him couldn’t cut ties fast enough, particularly those that catered to the Hispanic community, following remarks that he made about Mexicans. Macy’s, Serta, PVH and others dropped his product lines. They never came back.
More recently, Ivanka Trump’s fashion line lived by the sword and then died by the sword. The stars were aligned for her success – she was famous as the daughter of then-famous real estate developer and TV personality, Donald Trump. But from the moment Donald Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, to announce his candidacy for President of the United States, the Ivanka Trump “brand” was doomed. The once successful brand, full of promise and opportunity, which was born of the Trump moniker, died by the Trump moniker. It simply could not survive all of the controversy that surrounded it.
And more recently, in May 2021, is the alleged bad behavior of Chrissy Teigen, outspoken super model and TV personality. It was reported that she once bullied a 16-year old nonbinary person on social media, even suggesting that the person commit suicide. There was a public outcry. Teigen issued a public apology, but apparently it was not deemed sufficient. The planned launch of her cookware and dining collection, “Cravings by Chrissy Teigen”, at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s were cancelled, and Target, which launched the line exclusively in 2018, discontinued it (although it’s unclear if the bad behavior was the cause). The cookware line and cookbooks are currently available on Amazon as are the books on Target’s website. So, partially forgiven, I guess.
And then there are the celebrities who own up to their behavior, apologize and are forgiven by consumers. Steve Madden, founder and once-CEO of the trendy footwear company that bears his name, pleaded guilty in 2002 and went to prison for securities fraud and money laundering. He acknowledged his bad behavior. In fact, he wrote a book entitled, The Cobbler: How I Disrupted an Industry, Fell from Grace & Came Back Stronger Than Ever. He maintained his position as “creative officer” and the company continued to prosper after he went to jail.
Ditto Martha Stewart who, in 2004, was convicted of insider trading (specifically conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to the FBI) and went to prison (serving five months of a nine-month sentence), while also settling a civil suit brought by the SEC. She and the brand were (and are) interchangeable and many predicted that the brand would not recover from this body blow. Her brand slipped a bit following her conviction – Viacom’s CBS dropped her TV show; the magazine, Martha Stewart Living suffered a serious loss of advertisers; and the stock plunged 23%. She never apologized, insisting that she was innocent. In the years since, the brand has expanded into multiple new categories and continues to thrive. Ms. Stewart, although no longer the owner of the brand, continues as its spokesperson.
Some lines can’t be crossed
What can we learn from these examples and many others? What will brands/consumers/retailers forgive and forget and what will they not? Here’s my list (of course there are always exceptions):
Consumers will not forgive crossing these red lines:
1. Race (Paula Deen)
2. Ethnicity (Donald Trump)
3. Other protected groups such as LGBTQ, Women, Children (Chrissy Teigen)
4. Religion (Kanye West)
5. Bullying (Chrissy Teigen)
Consumers will forgive:
1. Victimless crimes (Steve Madden)
2. Financial misdeeds (unless there are innocent victims) (Martha Stewart)
3. Drug use (Drew Barrymore)
4. Personal problems shared by others or inspiring empathy (e.g., an eating disorder) (Mary-Kate Olsen)
In short, apologies and contrition from Kanye West would certainly be welcomed, but he won’t recover any time soon. He crossed a red line, and forgiveness, at least by brands and consumers, is not in his future.