New Balance: A Cautionary PR Story

by | Nov 11, 2016

At the time of writing, the United States of America feels like a particularly febrile place. Following the election of Donald Trump as the president of the country, the internet is awash with pictures of racist slogans and stories of people who are, apparently, no longer welcome in that country any more. This however, is a football website, and whilst we undoubtedly have strong opinions on this particular matter in a personal capacity, this isn’t really the place for them. It is, however, the place for a cautionary tale of the dangers of thoughtless corporate behaviour from a sportswear company which, yes, operates in Britain and manufactures the kits for two extremely well known football clubs in the UK.

Today, the reputation of New Balance, who have just made inroads into the world of kit manufacture following years of producing boots and other gear. On Wednesday night, however the Wall Street Journal reporter Sara Germano posted a tweet in which the company’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Matt LeBretton, said to her that, “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly w/Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Bad move. In fact, this wasn’t just a bad move, but a stupid, careless and potentially ruinous move. Quite what possessed LeBretton to be so careless is anybody’s guess, but by today social media was being flooded with videos of people burning New Balance products, while their mentions on Twitter have been a constant stream of abusive from users still raw at the result of the election.

It didn’t end there, either. By lunchtime today, the media on both sides of the Atlantic had picked up on the story. In the USA, the story was picked up by Forbes, GQ, and Business Insider, amongst many, many others. Meanwhile, back here in the UK, The Sun, The Mirror, The Independent and others all joined in with headlines linking the name New Balance to the words “Pro-Trump.” The company this afternoon released a statement which seemed be distancing itself from the initial comments made, which read as follows:

As the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States, New Balance has a unique perspective on trade in that we want to make more shoes in the United States, not less. New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.

We believe in community. We believe in humanity. From the people who make our shoes to the people who wear them, we believe in acting with the utmost integrity and we welcome all walks of life. Since 1906, we have carved our own path in being passionately committed to making things at our five factories in New England, even when nobody else did. New Balance and our thousands of employees around the world constantly strive to better our local communities. We always have and we always will.

Quite what the ramifications in the UK might be remain to be seen. The two big contracts with football clubs that they hold are with Liverpool and Celtic. That’s the Liverpool whose supporters have been boycotting The Sun for more than a quarter of a century. And the Celtic, a section of of whose supporters are not averse to making political statements of their own during matches. So far, the response from supporters in this country has been somewhat muted, but if there’s one thing that we know about the modern age, it’s that the old adage of the past, that “yesterday’s new is tomorrow’s chip paper”, can no longer be considered true. These associations are likely to going to hang around for some time, whether they’re fair or not.

To be clear, this isn’t a comment upon Donald Trump, and neither is it a comment on the merits or otherwise of the TPP trade deal. What it is, however, is a cautionary tale from the world of public relations. We don’t know at this time how this entire story will play out, whether New Balance will be able to recover its reputation – which was, previously, quite a strong one – or the extent to which there will be disquiet over Liverpool or Celtic’s contracts with them. What we do know for certain, however, is that the atmostphere out there, particularly in the United States of America, is caustic at the moment, that a lot of people are very scared and very defensive at the moment, and probably rightly so. If a Vice President of a major corporation is so shielded from that reality at the moment that he could possibly think that aligning his brand to such a divisive political figure in any way without ramifications, then perhaps there is a justification for him receiving the wake-up call that he has over the last twenty-four hours or so.

Back in the UK, perhaps Liverpool and Celtic won’t care about all of this . They are football clubs with multi-million pound contracts to protect, after all. Perhaps the supporters of the two clubs will consider this to be a storm in a tea cup, and will continue to wear shirts with the New Balance logo on them. In the USA, however, and let’s not forget that this is a market that dwarfs the global sales market for Liverpool and Celtic shirts, the company is now associated , whether it likes it or not , with the immediate aftermath of this presidential election, and there really is only one place to look for the blame regarding this. It should serve as a cautionary tale to others, for sure. 

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