Ruining Your Brand through Politics: Kenneth Cole

WARNING: Graphic photo of violence below.

Kenneth Cole is clearly trying to position itself as provocative and indulgent, but its tweets about politics in the Middle East surely must be too insulting to help the brand.

Companies often bring politics into their brand, of course, but there’s a pretty accepted, non-threatening way to do it: you capture a bit of the zeitgeist while striking a non-partisan tone and avoiding policy specifics. Like Makers Mark did in the 2012 elections, or even like Snickers did in 2000.

Makers Mark political ad

But this week, @KennethCole tweeted a clear reference to the United States’ political debate about whether or not to intervene militarily in Syria’s ongoing civil war:

There’s a certain fashion marketing narrative that encourages embracing the sassy indulgence of obsession with clothes and accessories. It’s a smart narrative for fashion marketers to build loyalty among the most committed followers, who are likely to be the biggest spenders and brand ambassadors to their friends. A clothing boutique in my neighborhood appeals to it with sandwich boards along the lines of, “I’d be rich if it weren’t for fashion,” etc.

But the Syria tweet crosses a line from indulgent and obsessive to incredibly poor taste. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the Syria conflict so far, and the specific “boots on the ground” debate is about preventing poisonous gas attacks. I’d love to call this kind of bad taste unprecedented, but of course @KennethCole has done this precise thing before, with an equally provocative tweet about Egypt.

Children murdered in Syria
A group of children murdered by a chemical weapons attack in Syria. HAHA, pumps and loafers!

Being provocative doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Spirit Airlines is famous for its “MILF” ads and other racy communications, but these ads serve a different purpose for an up-and-coming brand like Spirit by helping the airline get attention. And as a low-cost brand competing at the bottom of the market, the ads appeal to the sense of humor of Spirit’s target low-brow demographic while taking a “Scooby Doo” approach (as the company describes it) to keeping their ads non-threatening.

Spirit airlines ad
Spirit keeps its racy ads ‘Scooby Doo’ level.

With a crowded fashion marketplace, differentiation is certainly key. But isn’t the cornerstone of a fashion brand a sense of taste? The @KennethCole tweets aren’t just ribald — they’re downright ghoulish. Maybe they can build a successful brand using political references to appeal to people who think that’s funny, but the over-the-top grossout schtick that works for South Park doesn’t seem like a great fit for a high-end clothing line.