resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog

return to index

Publication: Financial Times, 17 July 2003.

When a brand becomes guilty by association

What can a business do when its name is ‘criminalised’. Kevin Braddock at cases such as Audi, Mitsubishi and Ben Sherman

Criminals have increasingly good taste. While companies may not care who buys their product so long as people do, marketing managers may have cause for concern that their brands are spending too much time in bad company.

In Easter Monday 2003, 26-year-old Jason Fearon was shot dead in the passenger seat of an Audi TT on in Central London, following a gunfight at the Turnmills club. The car subsequently crashed and the driver escaped, but the wrecked roadster was captured on camera and made front page news, symbolising the violence and menace that dogs London’s club. The singer Lisa Maffia of UK garage group So Solid Crew had been due to perform at the club that night but cancelled. Later news reports falsely associated her with the murder. The TT brand hardly fared better.

So Solid Crew, whose members have stood trial for attempted murder, gun possession and drug dealing, have made making liberal use of the TT in promotional material, co-opting the car as badge of aspirational inner-city cool. Two models were lent By Audi for the group’s Brit Awards performance, and members were given TTs as gifts when the signed contract with the record company Independiente.

The associations with So Solid Crew, whose members feature more regularly in the media for their crimes than their rhymes, have positioned the TT as motor of choice in murky, violent demimonde of UK garage culture. For many, the car has assumed a profile very much at variance with the ‘sporting progressive sophisticated’ ideal Audi touts for it.

Other brands have suffered from uncontrollable media positioning, too. Among the most visible examples of Burberry’s distinctive check, successfully revamped under Rose Marie Bravo, are football hooligans such as those photographed invading the pitch after England’s Defeat of Turkey in the Euro 2004 qualifier. The images of lawlessness and thuggery starkly contrast the fashion house’s aspirational marketing, which is full of fops, polo matches and country houses.

When brands are debuted into the rarefied of atmosphere of the style press and society pages but quickly end up ‘owned’ by the criminal fringes of society, it’s clear that they can be as socially mobile as humans, able to transcend class barriers and demographic categories with ease

So how do companies respond when part, if not all of a brand’s equity is ‘stolen’ - criminalized by association?

‘You get spikes of negativity, something nasty like The Turnmills shooting,’ says Audi’s head of Public relations John Zamett. ‘But it hasn’t knocked the trajectory of the brand. These things go on anyway and we’re not seen to be endorsing bad behaviour. Whether we’re involved these people or not, they’re going to buy TTs. You have a product out there, people will buy it.’

In 1986 US rap group The Beasties Boys set a precedent by literally stealing Volkswagen badges to wear as pendants. The group’s huge fanbase duly aped their heroes and swiped badges from parked Polos and Golfs, causing the manufacturer’s public relations department a grave headache. They solved this by ordering enough replacement badges to fill a room four feet wide by eighth feet deep.

‘VW was cautionary at the time not to do anything that might support a criminal trend,’ says Paul Buckett. ‘Anyone who had had their badge stolen could have one to replace it free of charge. It attacked our customers, but I don’t know that it affected the brand or that people thought were associated with vandalism, because it was our products that were being attacked.’

Steps were take subsequently to make badges more difficult to remove in subsequent. The fad had the effect of criminalizing the VW badge - bringing to it a value of lawless cool - if not the VW brand. A spate VW badge theft was reported in Yorkshire as late as 2000.

A more lasting criminal association hit Mitsubishi in the late-Nineties when millions of Ecstasy tablets bearing the Corporation’s three-diamond logo flooded the clubbing market. Hijacking logos to ‘brand’ ecstasy isn’t new - Calvin Klein, Motorola, Opel, Disney and Playboy pills have all been illicitly produced, while Rolex and Armani versions are currently in circulation. But the consistently high MDMA content and huge supply of ‘Mitsis’ - dubbed ‘the pill that saved clubbing’ by one magazine - ensured enormous popularity among clubbers, and generated for Mitsubishi the kind of contextualisation and viral marketing no brand manager can hope to control.

‘There’s very little we could do about it and we did issue a statement at the time,’ says Julie Rogers, corporate communications manager at Mitsubishi. ‘something like does cause concern within a company, especially when it’s in the public domain. But I think the public understand it’s not related to us in any way. We’re monitoring the situation.’

Brand uptake in communities with a periphery of petty crime, such as hip hop, garage and club culture, is a science yet to be understood, let alone controlled. Those subcultures have a yen to do things their own way. For business, then, the unpredictability is the principle cause for concern. ‘If companies are looking to build a subculture into their brand, it’s just too dangerous at the moment,’ says Sophie Spence, media planner at advertising agency Mother. ‘These things only happen through cross-cultural osmosis instead of through contrivance by marketing men. The degree to which this happens organically is the problem.’

Clubbers have long ‘bootlegged’ squeaky-clean corporate logos and slogans to reflect their own illegal interests: Coca Cola’s ‘Enjoy Coke’ logo has appeared on bootleg T-shirts ‘as ‘Enjoy Cocaine’, and Johnson’s Baby Powder’s branding as ‘Junky’s Baddie Powder’. Express Diaries’ ‘Is E part of your day?’ slogan proved similarly irresistible to T-shirt designers serving the club market.

Similarly, hip hop’s insatiable appetite for brands can be a poisoned chalice for marketers soliciting the frisson of ghetto fabulousness that Busta Rhymes brought to Allied Domecq with his ‘Pass The Courvoisier’ single. US car manufacturer Lexus has benefited enormously from ceaseless eulogising in rap, but a current vogue in the US for flipping the cars’ L-shaped logo 180 degrees into the shape of pistol, signalling gangster cred, is clearly of questionable value for the company. The Gucci monogram gained a huge level of visibility on billboard posters and ads for the album ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ by rapper 50 Cent - an ex-crack dealer who was shot nine times at close range in 2000.

However, the good news is that the same whims of fashion and youth culture are likely to move on as quickly as they arrive. Fashion can solve the problem it creates – even if, in the meantime, there’s little companies can do about it. ‘It’s critical that brands disassociate with any negativity and get the PR machine working to make it clear that this hasn’t been contrived,’ says Spence. ‘The most important thing is that companies become aware. Marketing departments are quite disassociated from what happens at street level and can be blind to the fact that these thing are going on until they’re so public they can’t be managed. In terms of active response, it can be too little to late.’

If it’s questionable how much official third-party endorsements can counterbalance the damage of criminal association (even, in Audi’s case, with the spotlessly clean Darcy Bussell), other examples suggest that an hijacked brand can be ‘stolen back’.

Jaguar, whose cars came to be associated with crime after featuring as the archetypal getaway motor in Sixties police dramas, has cleansed itself successfully of the underworld connotations (disregarding the fact that it was actually the force, rather than the hoods who drove S-type Jags.)

Menswear brands Ben Sherman and Fred Perry, too, have carefully distanced themselves from what was formerly their strongest market - violent skinheads and neo-Nazi bootboys whose wardrobe staples are classic Ben Sherman button-down shirts and Fred Perry’s short-sleeved tennis tops.

‘Internationally, we knew that Ben Sherman was thought of as a right-wing brand,’ says Andy Rigg, the label’s marketing manager. ‘Retail outlets in France, Germany and Italy were inclined that way. We walked away from those distribution channels, which meant walking away from a hell of a lot of business.’

Ben Sherman also sought to remove the aggressive overtones in advertising and do away with the ethnically-cleansed aesthetic of earlier ad campaigns.

‘These days, we don’t use white skinheads in advertising,’ says Rigg. ‘Our brand history is about being British, but new British, reflecting multiculturalism - for example, we’ve done a deal with Rio Ferdinand. Plus, we’ve avoided big logos which is what terrace behaviour prizes most, and the focus of the range isn’t the button-down shirt any more.’

Ironically, the notion of a ‘criminalized brand’ confirms that brand-based, rather than product-based marketing can perform so well as to become a victim of its own success, as Mistubishi and VW have discovered. Unofficial VW, Bentley, Mercedes and Lexus logo hip hop pendants are currently all available online for $25 each. The Beastie Boys’ legacy lives on.

© Kevin Braddock 2003

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.