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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"Companies need cultural anthropologists working for them," counseled Marc Gobe, president, chief executive officer and executive creative director at desgrippes gobe group, a brand-image creation firm. "The Abercrombie & Fitch culture is about as connected and sensitive as companies get," noted Gobe, who has consulted for A&F. "I think they were taken completely by surprise by the Chinese T-shirt incident; they thought they were speaking the language of youth culture. Cultural anthropologists can help companies understand changes, which sometimes arrive fast. The Calvin Klein ads that once were so controversial look tame compared with some of today’s fashion advertising, and YSL’s fragrance [M7] ad has full-frontal male nudity."

Events provoking the most damaging publicity in the past few years have been those with broader societal implications, underpinned by a degree of fear and uncertainty, rather than the missteps of a fashion brand or icon, notably: the perceived failure of U.S. intelligence services in the period prior to 9/11; the Catholic Church’s scandal over inappropriate sexual activity, and the raft of corporate accounting scandals that have decimated investors’ lifetime savings while lining the pockets of those companies’ executives, according to observers.

If not for this climate, contended Ziccardi, "Martha Stewart might not have been nailed to the cross. Stewart’s accused of doing something quite different from what Lizzie Grubman was convicted of doing. Running down 16 people is truly heinous," he said of Grubman’s offenses. "White collar crime, like Stewart’s, is [rampant] and everyone knows it."

Stoking the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty is the expansion of a 24/7 media world and the subsequent availability of information to the point of pervasiveness. This, in turn, has created what Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff calls a bionic consumer, one who is no longer persuaded by marketing campaigns and whose expectations of brands continues to climb. That helps explain why, in the end, the most salient element in assessing a brand’s power is its relevance to the people, its emotional ties with them, observers concluded. "There are plenty of brands, like J. Crew and Benetton, that have lost the plot, that have forgotten why they were relevant to the consumer," ad executive Kraft said. "When you have this problem on the scale that a Gap or a Levi now does, that’s a serious image problem. How they can deal with this remains to be seen."

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