When people say ‘all publicity is good publicity’, what they’re really saying is ‘every time my brand or I am talked about in the media – good or bad – it benefits me because it gets people talking.’
However, this simplistic view ignores one key component of publicity: credibility. Being featured in the media certainly creates awareness, but building a strong reputation is arguably the more important side of the PR coin.
A media mention could portray you as detached, critical, issue prone, naive, guilty, out of your depth, unapproachable or overly formal, immature or inexperienced. On the other hand, it could portray you are knowledgeable, experienced, professional, approachable, trustworthy, understanding, passionate, on a mission, mature, in control, friendly, or likeable – causing people to want more.
So yes, while all media coverage or publicity will get your name in front of more people… does that publicity elevate your reputation or hurt it? In the case of Patagonia, is the brand immature, or on a mission? This is where things get a little more complicated.
Taking the moral high ground
When a retailer takes the moral high ground, that brand will inevitably be opening itself up to scrutiny – especially when that stance comes in the form of a viral stunt. When a brand’s critical assessment of people’s behaviour touches a nerve, you should expect that all future campaigns, brand positioning, and business actions will be judged accordingly.
Take the example of Google and Facebook, which took a public stand against a supposed ‘Muslim ban’: an executive US order back in 2017 to ban immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Their strong comments condemning the order were followed by news reports that Google and Facebook had accepted millions in ad dollars from major anti-immigration group Secure America Now.
Lush, too, has received criticism for its apparent contradictory attitude, this time towards police. In 2018, the company received a mixed response after it launched an in-store campaign highlighting the bad behaviour of several undercover police officers, with the slogan “paid to lie” and “police have crossed the line”.
Fast forward to 2020, and Lush’s founder, Mark Constantine, was criticised on Twitter for photos showing him handing out care packages to police officers. That move alone wouldn’t have been enough to cause outrage, but combined with the company’s past stance against the police, and the underlying context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the photo opportunity did nothing but land the company in hot water.
So where does Patagonia’s ‘Vote the assholes out’ fit on the outrage-o-meter? For most brands, sticking such a political message in their clothing simply wouldn’t fly. But most brands haven’t spent the time, effort, and money building a loyal, authentic, genuine connection with their customer.
Patagonia has spent years building a loyal base of environmentally aware, outdoor-loving customers. To these customers, Patagonia can do no wrong, which is why the brand will most likely do more than get away with it. There’s a chance this could actually strengthen the Patagonia brand.
Patagonia’s saving grace is that unlike many ethically questionable companies, it is a genuinely environmentally-responsible brand. It’s a brand that truly lives up to its sustainability credentials, having supported, led, and donated to a wide range of causes over the years. The brand’s commitment to environmental issues put them directly in conflict with many climate-change-denying US politicians, including Trump, who, let’s not forget, is the man who pulled America out of the Paris climate agreement.
If you’re going to be provocative, it needs to be consistent – and Patagonia is certainly that. As Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s director of global communications and public relations, told Esquire: “We’ve been saying [vote the assholes out] at Patagonia for a few years. You can find some examples of T-shirts that we never sold, but that were made that say, ‘Vote the assholes out.’ I think you can find them on eBay or something like that now.”
Kenna goes on to point out that Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has been using the phrase for years, including in a letter for the 1% For The Planet community, where he wrote: “Remember, vote the assholes out.” By ‘assholes’, he’s referring to: “Politicians from any party who deny or disregard the climate crisis and ignore science.”
A mixed message?
Nevertheless, there are still some things I would have altered about Patanogia’s campaign. While the intended message was supposedly a bipartisan one, there’s no denying that the majority of people would assume the brand is telling its customers to vote ‘out’ the Trump administration, since they’re the ones currently ‘in’ the White House.
The message, which was intended as an activist stance against climate change, came across as clearly anti-Trump, with no clarity around the environmental intention behind the phrase. The brand did eventually build a landing page which explained the message in more detail, but it was no doubt missed by many of the people reading a quick, headline-grabbing news article online.
It is also possible to spread a political message without swearing. There are many people who believe that we need to respect leaders, even if they don’t directly agree with that leader’s opinion. By using the word ‘asshole’, Patagonia risks alienating those customers who might agree with the sentiment, but not the way it’s conveyed.
Nevertheless, I get the sense that Patagonia doesn’t want those people as customers in the first place. To them, the equation looks something like this: if the number of offended customers is outweighed by the number of customers whose loyalty is further strengthened by the move, then it’s worth it.
Much in the same way that KFC plastered the word ‘FCK’ across print ads and social media in order to apologise for their supply chain debacle, Patagonia is a brand that is happy to throw caution to the wind. Ultimately, it’s why their customers love them, and why they’re happy to pay hundreds of dollars for a Patagonia jacket.
Ready to be controversial?
How can you decide if your brand is strong enough to get away with a similar campaign with its reputation intact? You’ll need consistency, follow through, and a clear relevance and connection to the brand. If the infamous Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad taught us anything, it’s that politically motivated messaging can’t come out of the blue.
Ask yourself: is your customer connection strong enough that people would feel your product or service was so good or irreplaceable that they would want to buy it regardless of their opinion of your conduct? And finally, will the number of people offended outweigh the number of loyal fans whose love will be strengthened by this move? If the answer’s yes, avoid it. If it’s no, proceed – albeit with caution.