Just after the election, a New Balance spokesperson made a favorable comment about Donald Trump that was intended only as a view on his trade policy but that sparked protests from opponents, who literally set fire to their sneakers. Then in February, the CEO of Under Armour praised the new president's agenda in a TV interview, only to have to run full-page ads defending his statement and saying his choice of words "did not accurately reflect my intent."
But the latest sports apparel brand to step into the minefield of politics and consumer purchases did so by choice. On Friday afternoon, Reebok tweeted a flow chart trolling Trump's now famous comment to French President Emmanuel Macron's wife last week that quickly went viral online. During his visit to Paris, Trump was caught on camera telling Brigitte Macron, who is 25 years older than her husband, that she was "in such good shape — beautiful," a comment some viewed as an example of sexism and ageism toward Ms. Macron, who is 64.
Experts on branding and corporate reputation said Reebok's mocking tweet was the most prominent example yet of a company being willing to engage in a Trump-related "news-jacking" — when brands take advantage of a news event to proactively help their brand and send a message to customers. Many companies have critiqued Trump's policies, such as on his travel ban or the Paris climate agreement, but they've typically done so with the safety of numbers. And while many brands have inadvertently been dragged into politicized debates — think Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, or the Mars candy Skittles — few have elected to proactively troll comments made by the president.
"I can't think of another like it," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, the chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick. "This is an issue they want to own and they took the opportunity because it was right there."
Reebok's director of brand management, Inga Stenta, said in an emailed statement that the company's tweet spoke to its commitment to female customers. "Reebok first came on the scene with women's fitness, and today we are committed to helping change the narrative around women," she wrote. "We saw this as an opportunity — as a learning moment. Instead of judging or labeling, let’s raise the bar and push for progress."
What's interesting about Reebok's decision, said branding experts, is that sports apparel brands have a particular set of challenges when it comes to wading into social issues — whether intentionally or not. Years ago, basketball icon Michael Jordan reportedly said "Republicans buy sneakers, too" to defend why he wouldn't support a political candidate. While the origins of the story are unclear, the pithy phrase is often re-upped today as a reminder of the perils that exist if clothing brands go political.
For one, sports is a ubiquitous topic of conversation in today's culture, which amplifies the viewpoints of sports-related brands and their CEOs, said Bruce Haynes, founder of the bipartisan corporate reputation firm Purple Strategies who has a background in GOP consulting. And unlike the cereal consumers eat at breakfast or the soda they drink, apparel is something they wear, making those choices far more intimate and aspirational than the ones they make on other goods.
"It represents who you are and who you want to be," Haynes said. "It's how you want to change yourself. It ties to politics really easily." As a result, he said, sports brands that try to seize on controversial social issues could either strike a pot of gold or find themselves in a thicket of controversy. "It's a fantastic way to increase [customer] affinity if you get it right. And it's a fantastic way to lose customers if you get it wrong."
It's not yet clear what the impact will be of Reebok's social media bet on its bottom line. The tweet has been shared more than 48,000 times and drew praise from many on Twitter, who applauded the brand for speaking out on the issue. Many others said Reebok's message contradicted what they said was suggestive imagery of women the brand uses in other ads, or defended the president's comment to Macron as a compliment.
Anthony Johndrow, who heads up a New York-based reputation advisory firm, said companies are "experimenting, in many respects," with what they can do when it comes to talking about social issues. While he has often suggested companies engage in positive statements about social issues — such as Nike's Equality ads, which carried a non-partisan message about the playing field's capacity to equalize — he has traditionally said companies should steer clear of anything with a negative response to a political figure that isn't policy-oriented.
But Johndrow says the rules may be changing. "I'm wondering if what we're seeing right now, at least in social media, is 'maybe we could have a little bit of an edge, or get into a little bit of a fight,' " he said. Because sports apparel brands represent some of those brash, competitive themes, he thinks they can get away with things other industries can't. "What will be what’s interesting is if this becomes a new tack [Reebok does] on a regular basis. At the moment I think they’d chalk it up as an experiment."
Carreen Winters, chief strategy officer of the public relations firm MWW, agreed more are testing the waters. "In the past, politics was a third rail. You didn’t touch it," she said. But as more consumers say they make purchasing decisions based on the values a company touts — a new report by her firm finds that one in three people are so-called "corpsumers" — they're more willing to disregard that conventional wisdom. "Is a brand’s commitments to its values superseding politics? I think we're seeing it happen."
This story has been corrected to include the correct title for French President Emmanuel Macron.