Making the right headlines

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands in the news. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

What do Target, Sky and American Apparel have in common?

Besides being big global brands, they have all made headlines recently for less than admirable reasons.

american apparel

US retailer Target, the most recent to have negative publicity, was exposed earlier this month for supporting controversial right wing political candidates who have been vocal about their opposition to gay marriage. And the exposer? None other than the pop heroine Lady Gaga. She was due to sign a marketing deal with the brand, but has since withdrawn and has made her disapproval of Target’s actions very public indeed.

Its standard practice for brands to drop celebrities for bad behaviour, a la Tiger Woods, but for celebrities to drop brands is a shameful role reversal that can make any increased brand awareness or sales generated as a result of the endorsement disappear before you can squint your eyes and say, “is that really a meat purse?”

And it isn’t just the lost sales or dip in brand buzz, but in the age of everyone who’s anyone making a Twitter statement to every last soul in the digital world, bad brand news gets around like, well, bad news. Lady Gaga’s 9.1 million Twitter followers certainly aren’t best pleased.

The sexual harassment saga American Apparel has embroiled itself in, meanwhile, just gets worse. Just weeks after the brand’s CEO Dov Charney was sued for $250 million by a 20-year-old female staff member of ongoing sexual torment, a second young female former staffer has also come forward to say that Charney forced her into a raunchy photo shoot.

While American Apparel’s lawyers have declared the claims as “preposterous” and the actions of media attention seekers, Charney’s response does little to calm the angry reactions of a typical American Apparel shopper. He refuted claims that he forced the second girl into the raunchy photo shoot, claiming she was a willing participant. Willing or not, a 42-year-old CEO engaging in explicit conduct with a 19-year-old staff member is hardly the stuff brand morale is built on. And, I’m no lawyer, but admitting to those actions doesn’t do much to build Charney’s case against his first accuser.

Which brings me to Sky. The broadcaster was forced to pay out £200,000 after a tribunal ruled in favour of two female employees who claimed they were unfairly forced out of their jobs to save on maternity pay.

Sky claimed it was “disappointed”, but nevertheless, the court’s ruling was final, and Sky has been branded as a female-unfriendly employer, however it wishes to debate what actually transpired. In affirmation of its duty to the “thousands of valued women” it employs, a month later saw the dismissals of sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

Whether the two events are connected is a conversation that would be best left for the pub. At any rate, it has added further murky paint to the brush that has tarnished Sky with a hard to shake sexist reputation.

And all because of bad brand news. Call it PR, reputation management, or whatever it’s undisputable that Target, American Apparel and Sky have all now got a job on their hands at persuading the public that they are not really homophobic/perverse/misogynists. Their marketers have certainly got their work cut out for them.

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