The Dissonance of Kanye West: Incredibly Influential Yet Too Erratic for Fashion Brands?

Kanye West has never been known to play it safe.

From his 2009 Taylor Swift stage crashing to his new wave of political engrossment with President Donald Trump, the Yeezy creator has historically dived headfirst into controversies.

While the public has long accepted (and even appreciated) this to be West’s way — the infamous “Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment predated the Taylor Swift saga — the rapper and producer-turned-fashion designer’s more recent escapades have been markedly more damaging to his brand, according to a new analysis by Spotted.

“Throughout the past two years, conversation about Kanye West across social channels has been more negative than the average A-list male celebrity benchmark, with his positive to negative sentiment ratio being 24 percent lower than [his peers’],” the research platform, which analyzes millions of data points in the celebrity endorsement space, said in a report. “Additionally, Kanye’s behavior has also had a large impact on consumers’ perception of him, with Spotted’s data showing that consumers see Kanye as “wacky,” ranking higher than 97 percent of other celebrities for this attribute.”

According to Spotted co-founder and CEO Janet Comenos, there were two instances in particular that lowered West’s appeal with the 25-and-younger age demographic: No. 1 were his May comments during an appearance on TMZ Live, suggesting slavery was a choice. The second-most-damaging was his recent White House visit, which Comenos said many of Spotted’s survey respondents found confusing more so than angering.

Donald Trump, Kanye West. President-elect Donald Trump and Kanye West pose for a picture in the lobby of Trump Tower in New YorkTrump, New York, USA - 13 Dec 2016
President Donald Trump (L) and Kanye West
CREDIT: Seth Wenig/Shutterstock

While many brands — recognizing that Gen Z and millennial consumers value social responsibility and advocacy on the part of companies — have recently shifted their strategies to seek out “edgier” ambassadors, West’s behavior has been so polarizing of late that he’s even bypassed that benefit, according to Spotted.

“If we look at the reasons why Adidas uses Kanye West as a partner and why he is important to the brand — it’s more about his halo effect than driving large quantities of sales,” Comenos said. “Part of his persona is that he is so outrageous that he gets a ton of exposure, which can be helpful to [a fashion label]. But some of his more recent behavior has reduced his appeal with the younger segment of consumers when [appealing to that group] is exactly why Adidas is using him.”

Still, how does one explain West’s undeniable fashion influence despite his allegedly damaging antics? (At the height of Yeezy mania, West’s shoes were almost guaranteed to sell out — although they were often limited releases.)

“It’s the difference between a brand caring about a halo effect and a brand caring about someone driving sales for them,” Comenos said.

For what it’s worth, Adidas has been upfront about its expectation that West would create more of a halo effect for the brand as opposed to driving significant sales volume for the nearly $40 billion company.

“You have to separate the brand impact and the commercial impact,” Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted said in an interview with FN this month. “There’s no doubt that the brand impact of Yeezy product has been phenomenal because it’s put Adidas in a different space than it [was] before. From a commercial standpoint, it’s still very limited, but there is a spillover effect through Yeezy that made Adidas a hotter brand than it was before.”

While Adidas has mostly stuck with a limited release strategy for its Yeezy sneakers — generating added hype and buzz around the sneakers — the Yeezy Boost 350 V2 “Triple White” saw mass release last month. Those larger quantities of the “Triple Whites” meant that the sneakers were still available for purchase days after the release — but experts appeared to agree that it did not necessarily mean Yeezy had lost its luster (that remains up for debate).

Either way, many of the consumers surveyed by Spotted who find West to be fashionable indicated that they are not compelled to switch to a product because he endorsed it, a viewpoint likely bolstered by his recent political mongering.

Still, Adidas continues to assert that West’s artistry — despite (or perhaps because of) his sometimes unpopular sentiments — has invaluably enriched the brand. (Former Adidas North America president Mark Kings shared similar views in a 2016 interview with FN.)

“Kanye is who he is, and he brings different points of view out,” said Rørsted. “But you have to go back to the macro. We’re in 75 countries. If we wanted complete buy-in from everybody in the world with what we do in every one of those countries, we couldn’t upgrade.”

And — lest we forget — West, by marriage, also packs the power of the Kardashian-Jenner clan behind him. And if anyone lacks proof of Kim Kardashian-West’s global appeal: Just this month, research by cybersecurity firm McAfee found that the reality TV star is so popular that this year, she became the most dangerous celebrity to search for online in the U.K. (Kardashian-West ranked No. 19 in the U.S. version of the list.)

McAfee said cybercriminals often choose the most influential celebrities in hopes of taking advantage of the sheer interest around them to lure unsuspecting web users to malicious sites.

“With Kim Kardashian’s influence and business ventures, people will go to extreme lengths to be a little more like Kim,” said McAfee’s chief scientist, Raj Samani. (Despite his wife’s undeniable premarriage fame, West is largely credited with improving her fashion choices.)

So what does it all add up to?

According to Comenos — whether solo or with the Kardashians by his side — Spotted does not find West’s fame to be worth the danger.

“Overall, he’s an extremely risky choice, and not someone I’d be recommending to a brand in the fashion space.” Comenos said. “There are a lot celebrities out there that can help a brand be perceived as more edgy — and they don’t have these other negative qualities [such as being] erratic, rebellious or negatively outspoken, where Kanye ranks high.”

She added, “Those qualities make it very hard for consumers to trust an endorser — and trust is the core tenet of any successful endorsement or celebrity campaign.”

Rørsted, of course, sees it differently.

“We want to have the freedom of the creator come in and also sometimes have a different point of view, have a point of view that people react to in a positive and a negative sense,” Adidas’ chief said. “That is what the creator brings to the table, that is what Kanye brings to the table. If he brought a common position for everybody, I think people would not react to Kanye the way he does, so in many ways we’re very supportive of what he does, but it doesn’t mean we’re supportive of every statement. We’re not signing up to his statements; we’re signing up to what he brings to the brand and the products he’s bringing out.”

— With contributions from Peter Verry.

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