A brand’s reputation hangs on the success with which it projects and maintains its core values, providing consistent quality and a unified image that is at once universal and culturally relevant. So, in a world as instant, integrated and interconnected as ours, how feasible is it for international brands to stay in complete control of their identity, protecting themselves from being compromised by actions beyond their control? All it takes is for one user-uploaded photo to go viral, or an unvetted decision in a regional market, for a brand to lose a grip on its image.
Take the example of some mannequins in an Adidas window display in Russia during an LGBT-rights demonstration, which were reconfigured to mimic Nazi salutes. It would appear that this was done by staff members in support of the violent, far-right faction who were opposing the march and attacking activists under the seemingly indifferent eyes of onlooking police. As the author of this New York Times article states, “what are Western companies to do when a country’s culture becomes so toxic that even situating a clothing-retail store there can implicate the company in violent ideology and in violence itself?” Demands were made by a US-based human rights organisation in an open letter to Adidas HQ about the sorts of conditions that are imposed on their authorised dealers around the world in such circumstances. But while it is possible to train staff and monitor activity and conduct closely, can anything be done to prevent the deleterious effects of a few hapless individuals on the ground?
A similarly unfortunate intervention affected Ikea, when it was revealed that the Saudi Arabian version of their catalogue had been manipulated to exclude women. This is a brand that promotes inclusivity, harmony and fairness, so much so that it is prepared to speak out radically on behalf of the gay marriage lobby in Italy, so why on earth is it marginalising female identity in the Arab peninsula with the stroke of the airbrush? The brand’s official response blamed a third-party franchise for the creation of the catalogue, apologising for not monitoring the production of this catalogue more closely, especially when it so contravenes the “group’s values”. Whatever the situation, surely here we are seeing the complications of maintaining a tolerant universal identity while simultaneously appealing to a local market whose values are themselves intolerant towards the representation of women?
Google cite transparency as one of their core brand values, and publish a biannual transparency report detailing search traffic, removal requests and user data requests. However, there have been reports that a Google censorship notification feature in operation in China – aimed at alerting users to potential government-backed service disruption for certain search terms – has been disabled on the quiet. This is arguably an act of ensuring search quality and efficiency, which had been compromised by government censorship, but it does also go against the brand’s pledge for transparency in a region where freedom of speech is so delicate. How can a brand maintain all its integrity when trying to operate at an optimal level in a country where its core brand values are not shared?
In the past, controversy has been something that has been courted deliberately to provoke and publicise – take just about any United Colours of Benetton ad ever created – but in this day and age the challenge is much more to do with avoiding unintended, perhaps inevitable, media attention when core brand values have been compromised. The glare of the internet and the omnipresence of camera phones mean that scrutiny of global brands is never far away.
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