New Balance and the Dangers of Political Branding

 -  6 min read

Poker players often talk about tilt, the adrenaline that kicks in after a big win or loss, causing your brain to float or blood to boil. You might get tilted after the person next to you hits a straight on the last card, or you maybe you go on tilt after you win the biggest hand of the night on a full house. Tilt brings you outside of yourself, making you feel a little more than human. Invincible, maybe. You’re never supposed to play a hand on tilt, because, in a word, tilt makes you behave stupidly.

Not even 24 hours after the final polls had closed for the 2016 election, the shoe and apparel brand New Balance essentially played a hand on tilt. Sara Germano, a Wall Street Journal reporter on the sports retail beat, tweeted that New Balance’s VP of Public Affairs, Matt LeBretton, told her, “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” The Boston-based company has long been a strong opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and this was apparently the “deaf ear” LeBretton was referring too. For a company that can call out a deaf ear so easily, New Balance proved yesterday to be awfully tone-deaf.

Quite clearly, this was the outcome New Balance had hoped for, owing to Donald Trump’s hostility towards the deal. (It’s worth nothing that Hillary Clinton also claimed an opposition to the TPP, and resistance to the agreement was one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.) So New Balance was happy with the result, sensing some positives going their way, just like a poker player getting a few good cards. But just as that poker player can lose all his or her money for the night at once, a brand can do irreparable damage to its image by making proclamations like LeBretton’s while effectively on tilt. A quick scan of social media shows that the immediate response to New Balance has not been kind.

(photo credit: @netw3rk)

I am by no means saying that business and social and political beliefs should never mix. In fact, I’m loyal to some brands because of the stances they take (and because the product is terrific). But there is a major risk to equating your brand—whether your product is yogurt, a running shoe, or anywhere in between—to a strict line of thinking. Consider that consumers up to 35 years old are 20 percent more likely than older age groups to purchase products from a company whose social or political stances mirror their own. And then factor in that well over half of voters ages 18‚Äì29 cast their ballot in favor of Hillary Clinton. This is a socially and politically active age group, ready to make easy decisions about where their loyalties align. With one ill-timed announcement, New Balance might have just lost a good portion of its future customer base. The company got caught up in a classic poker delusion: because one hand went in their favor, they assumed that next few would break exactly the same way.

What makes this all especially indefensible is the fact that New Balance has been in the midst of similar incidents before, in the very recent past. In 2011, during our previous presidential campaign, company chairman Jim Davis gave $500,000 to a super PAC that supported Mitt Romney for president. The donation came within a week of Romney openly supporting an amendment to block all same-sex marriages. Gay-rights groups criticized this donation, calling for boycotts, forcing the CEO of New Balance, Rob DeMartini, to take to Facebook to defend his chairman, writing that his gift was “a private donation” independent of the company. One wonders why, how, New Balance, with very smart people in very high positions, didn’t learn its lesson five years ago.

Your brand is as much about the perception people have of you as it is the product you sell. New Balance seems to have lost sight of this. (In fact, the products it sells aren’t even a reflection of how they want people to perceive them.) Tilt is a strange thing. When we’re low, it makes us want to lower everyone else to our level, and when we’re high, it makes us want to reach still greater heights. In the end, discretion truly is the better part of valor. Sure, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. But even more important is knowing when to sit the hand out entirely.