When Hands Off Is Right On

NEW YORK — What can a fashion brand do when it’s hit by bad p.r. or a scandal? The prescription, in most cases, is simple: Do nothing.It...

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"Often, what’s damaging is becoming too timid, overly defensive — especially when it’s a fashion brand that’s had a very defined strategy," advised Diane Hamilton, a partner in Boston-based Retail Value Consultants, in referring to the aftermath of bad publicity.

Occasionally, controversy translates into a long-term positive impact, as ultimately was the case with Calvin Klein’s provocative advertising in the late Nineties. At that time, some harshly criticized it for imagery they saw as too overtly sexual, considering the ads’ teenage models, and Klein pulled part of the campaign. Today, observers believe Klein broke a marketing barrier in this country, where ads are still far more conservative than in Europe and South America. "If anything, the Calvin Klein flap made the brand more glamorous," stated Sam Shahid, president and creative director of fashion ad agency Shahid & Co. "The Calvin Klein ads were about sex. Sex makes you feel good; pleasure is always fine." Observed Neil Kraft, president of ad agency Kraftworks, "Calvin’s image has always been around great design and a certain amount of edginess. Those ads didn’t change that."

When negative business effects do arise, a brand needs to reestablish its credibility by assessing what aspects of its image or goods need repair, and then responding, in part, with advertising and p.r. efforts. The scale and scope of such campaigns can vary widely, depending on the extent of damage. When a brand is badly tarnished, sources said, it’s best to begin by making a direct connection with consumers, through a public relations effort such as interviews or community events, and to follow it with ads to further restore the luster.

For example, Don Ziccardi, chief executive officer at Ziccardi Partners, Frierson, Mee Inc., recalled how it took one year and $1 million-worth of ads and p.r. programs, developed by his agency, to revive people’s trust in Prudential back in 1995, after some of the firm’s salespeople misrepresented its insurance and investment products. When Abercrombie & Fitch offered T-shirts pairing caricatures of Chinese with the words Wong Brothers Laundry Service, in its summer 2002 quarterly, various Chinese groups contacted Shahid & Co., which produced the magalog, and asked for an apology in the form of donations to their organizations. Shahid & Co., in turn, passed those requests to A&F. Abercrombie officials declined to return phone calls seeking comment on their response.

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