Business advice: Lessons in social responsibility from the Adidas “shackle shoe”


Reverend Jesse Jackson and several other African-American leaders have blasted Adidas for introducing sneakers adorned with snap-on shackles. (Jay Paul/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 27, 2012

What were the executives at Adidas thinking?

That’s what everyone’s been asking ever since the company unveiled a new line of sneakers equipped with snap-on shackles that resemble those placed on inmates and slaves. Not surprisingly, the announcement touched off a furor, particularly among black leaders, who denounced it as crass and insensitive.

In the end, Adidas apologized and dropped the idea in the face of mounting criticism and a possible boycott of its brand. But in the wake of the controversy, many observers were left wondering whether the executives at Adidas are completely out of touch, unabashed in their pursuit of profits – or both.

At a minimum, it is doubtful that the company has adequately integrated principles of corporate social responsibility into its business model, even as a growing number of companies embrace good corporate citizenship as essential to their long-term survival.

Indeed, had Adidas executives asked themselves a few basic questions, the idea of a sneaker adorned with shackles would have been left where it belonged: on the drawing board. So with the Adidas episode in mind, here are a few questions that any socially responsible company should consider before introducing a new service, product or campaign.

Does the new project reflect the core values your company wants to project?

In the case of Adidas, it is hard to conceive of any justification for a marketing plan built around the image of a shackle - beyond, of course, a desire to make a splash in the marketplace and generate profits. That is probably why Adidas quickly apologized and left the matter at that -- without excuses or much explanation.

Do you fully appreciate the needs, sensitivities and background of your target audiences?

Adidas is no ordinary sports apparel company. It has an intense following in the African-American community, and that community has, in turn, served to keep the company on the map for decades.

Even a little bit of market research would have led executives to conclude that they should avoid an image as freighted with emotional baggage as the shackle. Some critics decried the shackles as a glorification of the prison culture popular among some urban youths; others complained that the shackles raised the ugly specter of slavery.

What impact are you having on particular groups or society at large?

Social awareness is a key component of corporate social responsibility. Good corporate citizens often consider the social consequences of their actions. For them, short-term profits alone do not equal success, particularly if they undermine the organization’s good standing in the community.

Did it occur to the folks at Adidas that they might plunge the nation into another painful conversation about race with this ill-conceived marketing gimmick?

Are you creating good will or destroying it?

Good will is an essential part of any business. At its core, good will is the product of a number of factors, including customer satisfaction, marketing, community relations and advertising. It takes years for a company to earn good will. And it can vanish in an instance.

So while Adidas executives may have expected to make a splash with this new line of sneakers, it is doubtful that they considered the potential for damage to the company’s standing.

Note that Adidas is no stranger to this type of public controversy. Just a year ago, the company was on the defensive in New Zealand, where it had designed and marketed the official uniform for the national rugby team, the All Blacks. An outcry ensued after fans discovered that All Blacks team shirts were being sold in New Zealand for double the price of similar shirts sold online in the United States.

Adidas compounded the problem by refusing to cut its price in New Zealand, prompting local retailers to cut prices themselves and absorb the losses. In the wake of the controversy, some commentators noted that Adidas failed to understand a basic reality in New Zealand: the All Blacks are not just another team, they are a national treasure. One has to wonder how a more socially attuned corporate citizen might have handled that situation.

Back here in the United States, Adidas is hardly in the clear. No less a civil rights figure than Reverend Jesse Jackson condemned Adidas for allowing “such a degrading symbol of African-American history to pass through its corporate channels and move toward actual production and advertisement.” He added that the move was “insensitive and corporately irresponsible.”

Only time will tell whether Adidas has done irreparable damage to its brand. But in the meantime, its experience can provide a powerful lesson to other companies: Keep the imperatives of corporate social responsibility in mind as you embark on your next business venture.

Shrita D. Sterlin is chief executive and brand officer of Penn Strategies, a Bethesda-based branding, public relations and marketing firm.

Follow Shrita and On Small Business on Twitter.

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