American consumers who care about “Made in America” take that claim very seriously, a fact New Balance sneaker company is learning the hard way. For many, when you say Made in America, you represent what they see America standing for.
For New Balance, the commitment to being Made in America is about supporting American workers and the American economy. For generations, that would be a mark of value and honor for all Americans. Unfortunately, in these days of political divide and identity politics, everything a company tries to do can be pulled out of context and turned into a rallying cry for the opposition.
When Candidate Trump first began talking about bringing back manufacturing to America, New Balance applauded, mentioning, of course, that they were the “an American shoe company whose employees make shoes for the people who wear them” … but that wasn’t enough.
That comment may have been taken in stride, but it was underscored by NB’s VP of Public Affairs Matthew LeBretton, who said, “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”
It wasn’t necessarily a company endorsement of a candidate roughly half the country hates, but it was close enough for many once proud New Balance customers. Enraged, that the brand would “support” a candidate they didn’t like, they freaked out, posting pics and videos of them burning or flushing New Balance branded products.
New Balance came back by immediately arguing the statement was not meant to be an endorsement, that the comments had been taken out of context. But they forgot Twitter doesn’t really care about context. The damage was done and cries for “boycott” began.
New Balance tried again, releasing a statement through NBC News: “As the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the U.S., New Balance has a unique perspective on trade in that we want to make more shoes in the U.S., not less… New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.”
But angry consumers don’t want a company that already took what they see to be a partisan position to come back to the middle. They want their emotions assuaged. They want what made them angry to be denounced. They’re not looking for logic or equanimity. Some companies would have simply moved on and let people get over it. New Balance tried again, which, in itself, speaks to how much they care about their customers’ opinions:
“We believe in community. We believe in humanity. From the people who make our shoes to the people who wear them, we believe in acting with the utmost integrity, and we welcome all walks of life. Since 1906, we have carved our own path in being passionately committed to making things at our five factories in New England, even when nobody else did. New Balance and our thousands of employees around the world constantly strive to better our local communities. We always have and we always will.”
Quite a statement. We’ll see where it gets them.
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.