Things Are Not Moving in the Right Direction for New Balance

Last week was perhaps the longest week I’ve had at BC. Although I’m not sure how America will change in the next four years, I’ve come to terms with what has resulted from an exhausting election season. But people are still devastated, still angry, and still sensitive from what has happened, and many public figures have tried to console them.

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Unfortunately, New Balance did the opposite. The athletic shoe manufacturer put itself in the hot seat after a company spokesman recently voiced the company’s support for President-elect Donald Trump. During Barack Obama’s presidency, New Balance had publicly opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an international trade agreement that decreases tariffs for companies that outsource their production of goods. A “Made in USA” brand, New Balance has always taken pride in the well-paid domestic factory jobs that it offer to its employees. New Balance felt concerned by the TPP’s negative impact on manufacturing jobs in America and threatened by the competitive advantage the TPP would give to major outsourcing peers like Nike. Other opponents of the TPP included Donald Trump and presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Hence, shortly after Trump’s election, New Balance’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Matthew LeBretton, told the Wall Street Journal 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.”

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Thanks to social media, news of the company’s political sentiment spread like wildfire. Reporter Sara Germano tweeted out LeBretton’s remark, which was then further circulated by popular sneaker blog Sole Collector.  And boy were people angry. Controversy arose with hundreds flooding to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in defense of or offense against New Balance. Customers sparked a boycott on social media with videos and pictures of themselves throwing away their New Balance sneakers into the trash, fires, and even toilets. Other Trump opponents vowed to never purchase from the shoe brand again, stating that they couldn’t buy from a company that “endorsed such a hateful person with toxic policies.”

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New Balance’s VP tried to defend the company by clarifying that they aligned with Trump on his trade policies, not his entire political agenda. However, the damage was done. Despite New Balance’s explanation, many, who were already incensed by the election results, have continued their criticism. With New Balance’s annual footwear sales paling in comparison to peers Adidas and Nike, there’s fear that the brand’s business will take a hit from the public scrutiny and lose market shares to its competitors.

On a broader scale, New Balance’s current dilemma is nothing new. While social media platforms encourage greater freedom of expression, they’ve also become common outlets for people to exhibit backlash and misconstrue information during times of discontent. Another example would be the mango boycott on the Chinese social media site, Weibo. With the recent territorial disputes over the South China Sea ruling in favor of the Philippines instead of China, Chinese netizens turned to social media to boycott imports of Filipino mangos. The boycott expanded to exclude other Filipino exports as the people’s discontent was further catalyzed by other popular opposing memes and pictures. Vendors on China’s e-shopping platforms (e.g. Taobao) have also agreed to stop selling imported goods from the Philippines. This is expected to put a strain on the trade relationship between the two countries as Chinese citizens pursue their fierce opposition of the court ruling.

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This picture stating “won’t accept, won’t participate, won’t recognize” has been shared more than 400,000 times on Weibo.

In the past, we found it hard to believe that one person’s words could have such a large influence on others, especially if they’re your average Joe. Now, any regular civilian with a mobile device has the same power as celebrities or politicians to prompt massive controversy. And with a lot of social media accounts being public to the universe, many people’s views can be easily swayed in a short amount of time (as we’ve seen this past year during the presidential campaigns); without realizing the quick momentum of news on social media, numerous public figures and businesses can be negatively impacted by what the average person says online.

So a word of advice to businesses out there: everything you say becomes less and less private every day. Social media has become the world’s eyes and ears, and no one wants to put their foot in their mouth like New Balance did.

 

8 comments

  1. Wow. Thanks for making this post – definitely missed reading about this in the news. I think this just goes to show that in today’s world, given how divisive things have become, companies should be smarter about the way they endorse people – that too so publicly. Especially for a company that isn’t the largest player in the shoe market, it could mean lower sales. We can see a similar trend happening with executives at major tech companies, whose stocks have been falling since the election result. Yes, it’s driven more by the actual result of the election rather than which candidates were publicly supported, but it still brings together the fact that politics can play a huge role in companies that may seem very distant from the election process.

  2. This was an awesome post with great points! I was following how New Balance took their stance on this election and followed the backlash to come with it that you had mentioned with people throwing away their NB sneakers and even burning them. I wonder should companies even make statements that publicly support one side or another, as regardless there would have been backlash, so I believe companies need to just be smarter and not side with anything. Businesses do have a lot of power in voice and with social media nowadays, they are amplified to the max.

  3. jagpalsingh03 · ·

    Great post! I haven’t been following this story closely but I had assumed that the New Balance execs. came out and explicitly endorsed Donald Trump. This just shows how anything can be sensationalized by the media! I know within the past 2 years, New Balance has tried really hard to rebrand itself as a cool, American brand and it was working. Celebrities, athletes, and the general public, as far as I can tell, have been wearing the brand a lot more. But, like you said, they were still way behind their competitors and this PR disaster will not help. To add even more fuel to the fire, a few neo-nazi/alt-right organizations have now endorsed New Balance as “their shoe.” Although most of these organizations are nearly unheard of, the media is loving this story as much as it loved the initial New Balance mistake. It’s probably best if most brands just avoided the words “Donald Trump” for the next few weeks.

  4. gabcandelieri · ·

    Awesome post! I had no prior knowledge about the New Balance scandal, but as you mentioned, that just goes to show the increasing power of social media. In light of the clear division of the American public over the election results, it seems extremely careless of New Balance, a company undergoing an intense rebranding effort, to even hint at the company’s political affiliation. In reality, New Balance was not trying to declare itself as a diehard Trump-supporter, yet the sensitiveness of the issue caused the company to take a hit for its business outlook. I wonder if the social media trend will actually affect sales or if people are just using this as a means of expressing their opinions in a powerful way. Yet, in my opinion, the phrase “any kind of PR is good PR” may not apply to this situation.

  5. Very cool post! I myself have not owned a pair of NB shoes in a long time, but thought they were making a comeback with some of their throwback sneakers. Interesting to see the public backlash that is happening due to their social media presence. I wonder if NB’s fall has as much to due with their social media accounts, as it does with their competitors completely outperforming them. With Nike being the leader in the industry, and UA and Adidas hot on their tail, their seems to be no room for NB anymore regardless of what they say on social media. Hopefully, they turn it around cause I am a sucker for some new 990s.

  6. Awesome post! As an odd coincidence I was just a few minutes ago online shopping for a pair of new balance- I didn’t make the purchase yet, but I’m not sure a tweet like that would stop me. I am not a Trump fan, but I see a lot of the backlash as an unsurprising overreaction to a single tweet. It doesn’t surprise me that so much hate for the brand resulted from a pretty careless and poorly timed comment from someone on the inside of NB, but it’s interesting to consider that had Hillary won, the comment would have probably exactly the same, but with Hillary’s name inserted where Trump’s is. Like you said, neither of them support the TPP. Goes to show how careful reps have to be on social media, and frankly with a comment like that in the current digital atmosphere, NB should have known better.

  7. sandytanny · ·

    Great post! Last week I wrote about some of the dangers that brands face when they choose to enter into the political arena and this is certainly not a good move for New Balance. I myself own a couple of pairs of New Balance sneakers, which I love, but I too was off-put by these statements. Regardless of their opinion towards the TPP, it was reckless of LeBretton to seemingly align himself with Trump, especially now when people are still very much angry and upset with the results of the election and protests are still happening across the nation. Though I won’t be burning or throwing away my NB sneakers anytime soon, I would suggest that NB does some PR to disassociate with these statements and perhaps emphasize, at the very least, a neutral political stance.

  8. Companies and brands should just stay out of politics. Issues are fine, if its aligned with a company’s mission, but backing a candidate never works out well…

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