How Criticism on Social Media Impacts Designers and Brands

When Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss walked the runway in sky-high platform shoes for Marc Jacobs on the final day of New York Fashion Week, few could have expected that it would be the models’ hairstyles making the headlines.

The women may have wowed during the designer’s spring ’17 collection, but their dreadlocked hairdos prompted a wave of criticism across social media accusing Jacobs of cultural appropriation. The designer took to his personal Instagram account to address the backlash — first defending his creativity, then later apologizing for his response to critics.

Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 Show Platforms
Gigi Hadid walking the Marc Jacobs runway.
CREDIT: REX Shutterstock.

“I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity. I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself [through] art, clothes, words, hair, music,” Jacobs posted on Instagram.

With social media enabling users to share unfiltered feedback on an endless range of topics, fashion firms and their top executives are feeling the pressure to not only have an online presence but to carefully manage the platform.

Joe Favorito, a professor at Columbia University and a sports media consultant, said companies must be aware of both the negative and positive effects of engagement in the digital realm. “Anything where the nameless consumer is involved runs a risk,” he said, adding that brands must be consistent, authentic and accurate online.

For Brandblack, an athletic footwear and apparel brand that sponsors star athletes such as NBA guard Jamal Crawford and NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson, being open to online criticism has been an effective business strategy. “Because we are a new brand and not that well known, social media has been a huge part of our growth and our brand identity,” said founder David Raysse.

Paying attention to consistent themes in consumer comments has played a role in Brandblack’s product decisions. “If you look at where our product started when we first launched to where we are now, the arc is pretty dramatic,” he said. “Part of that is from what retailers [as well as] people [online] have responded to.”

The New Sounding Board

As more consumers turn to digital media to discuss social and civic issues, brands are finding themselves under a new kind of microscope. Golden Goose, Timberland and Dolce & Gabbana experienced that firsthand.

Luxury footwear label Golden Goose came under fire this summer after the release of its distressed Super Star sneakers. The shoes, intentionally detailed with worn laces, scuffed suede and duct tape, garnered backlash for what some called “poverty appropriation.”

Golden Goose Distressed Superstar Sneakers
These Golden Goose Distressed Superstar Sneakers retail for $585.
CREDIT: Barneys New York

The internet firestorm provoked the brand to respond, but not to apologize. Golden Goose said it has proudly featured distressed footwear and apparel in its collections since launching in 2000, and it claimed that the controversial shoes were designed to pay homage to the West Coast’s skateboarding culture. Retailing at nearly $600, the sneakers that have upset some are currently sold out.

However brands choose to respond to online feedback, Bob Dorfman, creative director at San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising, said it’s important to develop a singular vision. “If they are faithful to that, then they can maintain a market and build a market,” Dorfman said.

For Timberland, controversy came in February when it unveiled its Mono Grey 6-inch boot. Some users likened the extra laces included with the boots to a noose. The New Hampshire-based company opted not to respond to the heated online debate. And even though the argument became a trending topic on Facebook, the shoes were ultimately a sales hit.

Timberland Mono Grey Boots
Timberland 6 Inch Premium Boot in Mono Grey.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Concepts.

As for Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian fashion house ran into trouble in March for a shoe it described as the “Slave” sandal, which was available on its e-commerce site. Outrage ensued and, although the company also chose not to comment, it changed the sandal’s description on its site.

Dolce & Gabbana Slave Sandals
CREDIT: store.dolcegabbana.com

The Bottom Line

Is any press good press?

“The negative can bring more attention to the brand, and it can bring people opposing the negative view out to support the brand,” Dorfman argued. “The fact that it puts the brand in the public [eye] can help with recognition.”

Celebrities and superstar athletes also have their crosses to bear when it comes to social media. Since August, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand up for the national anthem prior to games as a cry for social change. His stance has erupted into a nationwide debate. Many have been vocal about their disapproval of the Nike-sponsored athlete’s protest; however, Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers jersey skyrocketed to No. 1 on NFLShop.com in September.

Sports industry analyst Matt Powell of The NPD Group Inc. said that although brand sales are not always impacted by negative dialogue circulating online, he has seen an uptick in consumer awareness of corporate social responsibility. “Today’s consumer is much more concerned with what the mission of the brand is and with the ethics and transparency of the brand,” he said. “If they don’t agree with those positions, they are going to take their business elsewhere.”

Under Armour and Stephen Curry shouldered an onslaught of social media jokes in June following the release of the Curry Two Low “Chef” sneaker. The basketball shoe — featuring a simple white, black and light gray color palette — was blasted online for lacking a cool factor. Even Kevin Durant, Curry’s new Golden State Warriors teammate, said the shoes were “bad.” Nevertheless, the Under Armour shoe was a best-seller.

Under Armour Curry Two Low Che
The Under Armour Curry Two Low “Chef.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.
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