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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.