The quips started coming almost as soon as the news broke that Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana had been sentenced to jail in Italy for one year and eight months each for tax evasion. Would their new collection feature blue and white stripes and people holding boards with numbers on?
More interestingly, perhaps, is whether the misdemeanours of Messrs D&G will have any material impact on their eponymous brand.
Conventional wisdom suggests that whilst bad publicity for young, new companies can provide a boost, this tends to be temporary and that for more established businesses the impact can be even more damaging. Brand equity can suffer long-term damage from sustained bad publicity but as the University of Pennsylvania reported there is a “sleeper effect” where consumers tend to retain an awareness of a product or company without necessarily retaining negative memories or attitudes once associated with it.
Herein also lies a possible benefit for D&G. Because the brand has always been bigger than the two individuals who created it, their personalities are far less invested in the brand than, say, Branson is to Virgin. A typical D&G customer is primarily concerned with the aspirational quality of the brand, the quality and design of the products and the exclusivity of ownership. Given that the crimes of the owners are financial and nothing more sordid than that, it is unlikely that any impact on the brand will be anything other than temporary.
However, for other businesses there is a lesson here to be learnt. Many businesses crave association with a celebrity and endorsement has become an ever-present part of brand marketing. But as with everything, brands need to be careful who they hook up with and put in place contingencies for a parting of the ways almost as soon as the relationship has begun.
Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture all ended their association with golfer Tiger Woods following his admission that he had been unfaithful to his wife. Coca-Cola ended its relationship with Wayne Rooney after his alleged infidelity and an incident where he swore into a television camera jarred with the company’s brand position.
The investment required to secure a face for your business demands careful thought and this means understanding your brand profile and finding a face that suites seamlessly with it. That’s why testing the market perception of celebrity options is sensible, not so much for asking why a celebrity may be suitable for the brand, but as importantly asking why not. Ask what the consumer’s perception of the celebrity is in the context of the product, but also what their general opinions of that person are. The rest, to an extent, is a game of chance and ensuring there is a swift get-out clause for the brand in the event of celebrity misdemeanour.
It’s impossible to accurately say whether there is any retrospective re-interpretation of a brand when its associated celebrity goes bad. However, it’s important from the start to highlight the risk areas and then to be in a position to take swift action in the event of a problem in order to guard against lasting collateral damage.