The neo-Nazis were hungry. They had spent the day in a Charlottesville, Va., courthouse testifying at the preliminary hearing for a white nationalist jailed for pepper-spraying counterprotesters during August's deadly Unite the Right rally. Now, after the long drive home to Alexandria, Va., they craved pizza.
"We were going to order from the local place where we get pizza all the time, but we said no, Papa John's is the official pizza of the alt-right now," said Eli Mosley, the 26-year-old leader of the white separatist group Identity Evropa. "We're just supporting the brands that support us."
That show of support — unsolicited and unwanted by Papa John’s — exhibits an emerging danger to major American brands negotiating the racial politics that have cleaved the country.
It is no longer enough for companies to keep a low profile when it comes to polarizing issues involving race, brand experts say. Instead, some companies are preemptively stating their positions, hoping to avoid being hijacked by white supremacists eager to spread their ideas into the mainstream by tying themselves to household brands that sell products such as pizzas, burgers, sneakers and cars. This week, Papa John’s tweeted an explicit rejection of neo-Nazi ideas.
“Companies need to take a public stand on issues that are affecting consumers in advance of being co-opted,” said Heide Gardner, chief diversity and inclusion officer at IPG, one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing conglomerates. “Brands need to build a certain level of sophistication around racial issues. They need to be really mindful of how charged the environment is and take pains to look at situations through a diversity lens.”
Papa John's learned this lesson the hard way after the chain, a major sponsor of the National Football League, found itself in the unwelcome embrace of neo-Nazi groups following its chief executive's Nov. 1 call with investors, in which he blamed disappointing pizza sales on football players' protests against racism and police brutality.
After the call, a neo-Nazi website hailed Papa John's as "Sieg Heil Pizza" with a photo of a pie whose pepperonis were arranged into a swastika.
It didn’t matter that the company immediately condemned racism and all hate groups. “We do not want these individuals or groups to buy our pizza,” a statement from Papa John’s said.
“They can signal all they want, but we know,” said Mosley, praising Papa John’s chief executive John Schnatter’s statements.
The same unwanted attention has come to New Balance, Wendy’s and other companies. The neo-Nazis’ campaign to co-opt brands has forced firms into a familiar pattern: corporate statements disavowing white supremacy, typically followed by silence, in hopes the controversy will blow over without long-lasting damage to their image and sales.
That approach did not work for Papa John’s, whose stock fell by 13 percent between the earnings call and the close of business Tuesday.
That night, in a renewed attempt to disown the neo-Nazis who have attached themselves to the brand, Papa John’s tweeted an emoji of a raised middle finger to “those guys.” The company also apologized for Schnatter’s “divisive” comments on the earnings call and affirmed its support for the NFL players protesting inequality.
“We will work with the players and league to find a positive way forward,” the company tweeted. “Open to ideas from all. Except neo-Nazis.”
A spokesman said the company wanted to be “crystal clear” about where it stands with regard to white supremacist groups.
Other companies should take heed of Papa John's experience, experts say. As the marketplace becomes the latest battleground in the culture wars, brand strategists are advising companies accustomed to staying out of the political fray to proactively weigh in with bold statements about race — as Nike and Ben & Jerry's have done — to thwart attempts by hate groups to adopt brands as their own.
More brands are also building up their crisis management teams in preparation for the next racial flare-up, said Tiffany R. Warren, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group, a global marketing and corporate communications holding company.
“That’s the new reality,” Warren said. “It’s not just nice to have. It’s the way of doing business now.”
Some companies were bystanders when they were swept up in the racially charged atmosphere.
Tiki Brand, owned by Wisconsin-based Lamplight Farms, was minding its business as a purveyor of Polynesian kitsch when its bamboo torches were used by white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville.
Images of angry young white men parading through the University of Virginia campus holding the flaming torches turned the product once evocative of backyard barbecues and luaus into a symbol of white supremacy.
The company declined to comment on whether it has felt any financial effects.
Other companies caught the admiration of neo-Nazis after their executives voiced support for President Trump or his policies.
Yuengling, based in Pottsville, Pa., and touted as "America's oldest brewery," became the favored beer of white nationalists after the company's owner backed Trump in the final days of the campaign.
Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer website, declared New Balance the "official shoes of white people" after an executive of the Boston shoe company praised Trump's stance on trade soon after he was elected. Liberals tweeted pictures of themselves trashing or burning their New Balance sneakers.
Other firms attracted the attention of white nationalists through branding mistakes of their own. Anglin proclaimed Wendy's the "official burger of the neo-Nazi alt-right movement" after the fast-food restaurant mistakenly tweeted a picture of Pepe the Frog, a white nationalist symbol, in the same red pigtails as the Wendy's girl mascot.
And white supremacists celebrated when a casting call for a Cadillac commercial sought "any and all real alt-right thinkers/believers." Cadillac said at the time it did not authorize the casting notice, but Anglin had already pounced, writing in a post titled "Yes, We are Mainstream Now" that "it was natural for a major American corporation to want someone from our movement."
There is no telling the impact these endorsements have had on companies’ sales or on the movement’s recruitment efforts. But experts expect the co-opting of brands to continue.
“It helps to make the alt-right seem more like normal Americans rather than a fringe,” said Nour Kteily, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University whose research has focused on neo-Nazi groups.
Matthew Heimbach, the 26-year-old chairman of the Traditionalist Workers Party, a white nationalist group, said he will keep having Papa John’s delivered to his local chapter meetings in Paoli, Ind.
“Condemn us all you want, but we will continue to buy your pizza to support your struggle against the politically correct agenda,” Heimbach told The Washington Post. “We have to prove that we are a reliable economic, social and political bloc within American politics.”
Endorsing brands such as Papa John’s, he said, “provides a platform for us to spread our message so folks will know what we stand for, go to our websites and possibly join us.”
In Alexandria last week, Mosley and his white nationalist buddies drove to Papa John’s to pick up two pizzas — pepperoni and meat lovers. For security reasons, they did not want pizza delivered to the home of Richard Spencer, who, as president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, has received death threats.
They gathered in Spencer’s living room and — some for the first time — dug into slices of Papa John’s.
“It doesn’t matter what it tastes like,” Mosley said. “It’s the official pizza of the alt-right.”
Then they washed it down with Yuengling beer.