In October, multiple companies dropped Kanye West from sponsorship deals after he was accused of making antisemitic comments on multiple social media platforms and wore a “White Lives Matter” shirt to Paris Fashion Week.
West first cut ties with Gap in mid-September before the events in October. Then after his controversial posts were shared on social media, Instagram and Twitter disabled his accounts. JPMorgan Chase Bank, record label Def Jam, talent agency Creative Arts Agency (CAA), and film agency MRC have also cut ties with West. Additionally, MRC shelved West’s documentary; Foot Locker, T.J.Maxx and Adidas have pulled Yeezy products from their shelves and racks; and Jaylen Brown and Aaron Donald, who were part of West’s brand Donda Sports, stepped down from their positions.
The West backlash begs an interesting question: is it becoming common practice for companies to distance themselves quickly from “canceled” public figures?
“Yes, public opinion has a stronger voice and thus more influence than ever,” said Dr. Jeannette Guignard, professor of organizational leadership. “Bad publicity and getting pegged as ‘the bad guy’ can result in serious damage to a company’s brand and reputation that is difficult to recover from. So, if a public figure is shrouded in negativity, companies want to distance themselves from that.”
But how badly can canceled celebrities being associated with certain brands really hurt the companies?
“Canceling a key partner does not seem to hurt companies in the near term, except for money guaranteed to a spokesperson they cancel,” said Dr. Tim Gramling, dean of the Robert K. Jabs School of Business.
Companies may be hurt in the beginning after cutting ties, but they will slowly build themselves back up over time. Some companies are not affected at all. As an example, Gramling pointed to Tiger Woods’s “cancellation” in 2009, during which companies that sponsored him were not affected significantly.
“Brand reputation and credibility is fragile,” Gramling said. “It takes a lot of time and money to build a positive brand image, but it can be tainted very quickly. Social media has changed consumer relationships with companies. We are now ‘friends’ with our favorite brands, and these brands that we are loyal to are now a reflection of who we are and what we believe in. Just like companies rush to distance themselves from public figures under negative scrutiny, so do consumers try to distance themselves from brands that have a bad reputation.”
Gramling said he expects that companies will begin to circle back to West and partner with him again.
“American culture is forgiving, and reputations can recover after a suitable waiting period,” Gramling said. “While several clothing lines have dropped West, others like Ralph Lauren and Prada may find his brand and notoriety aligned with theirs.”
Lexie Nelson, freshman marketing major, agrees with Gramling and does not think this string of canceled partnerships will drag West down.
“Kanye will still make money and they will continue to make money off of him,” Nelson said.
However, Guignard disagrees, noting that West’s long history of questionable behavior will likely make it difficult for big-name brands to align with him.
“His repeated pattern of socially unacceptable behavior makes it unlikely that brands will want to partner with him,” Guignard said. “He would have to make a huge transformation and build up his credibility without incident to gain back the trust of companies. Right now he’s too volatile and it’s not worth the risk.”