New Balance caught up in Trump controversy

AMANDA SABGA/Staff file photo Congresswoman Niki Tsongas recently toured New Balance's factory in Lawrence. Tsongas said New Balance has a responsibility to quell the controversy over a pro-Trump comment made by a company official after the election.

LAWRENCE — A beloved hometown company that for decades has sold its progressive values along with its athletic shoes shot itself in the foot last week when it issued a statement that appeared to align it with President-elect Donald Trump, prompting a furious outcry by its customers and creating a public relations fiasco that marketing experts say may take years to undo.

After any other presidential election, the statement by Matt LeBretton, vice president of corporate communications at New Balance, that a president-elect's trade policies will be a turn in the right direction might have gone unnoticed, especially considering that New Balance has been openly feuding with President Obama on the military's refusal to buy its shoes and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

New Balance's battles with Obama got little attention from its loyalists. But then came Nov. 8. Emotions following this election have been raw and rigid, and demonstrators – many undoubtedly wearing New Balance shoes — protested the outcome before LeBretton made the statement commending Trump's trade policies to The Wall Street Journal.

Things for New Balance got even worse over the weekend, when a far-right blogger cheered LeBretton's comment in a posting on its website that declared New Balance “the official shoe of white people.” Andrew Anglin, publisher of the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, called on Americans to buy New Balance shoes to show solidarity with the company and with Trump.

Protesters did the opposite and called for a boycott. Videos of shoes with New Balance's trademark “NB” logo getting blow-torched, flushed down toilets and stuffed into trash cans went up on YouTube and other social media, including on the company's Facebook page and LeBretton's Twitter account. Protesters rallied outside New Balance's shoe-shaped Brighton headquarters. The company has a factory on South Union Street that employs 650 people and a retail outlet in the building that attracts hundreds of customers daily, but only shoppers carrying New Balance bags have been showing up outside the building this week.

The company so far has issued two statements on the controversy, denouncing bigotry and affirming its commitment to a diverse workforce. The statements did not mention Trump, except to note that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders share Trump's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The protests have continued.

It's all been a public relations nightmare for a company that only a month ago launched what it hopes will be its next big thing, a customized baseball cleat that allows customers to design the look of the shoe which sells for up to $160 a pair. The shoes are made in Lawrence.

The company said when it launched the new cleat at a press conference on the factory floor in Lawrence on Oct. 28 that it expected to sell about 70 pairs a day of the customized cleat through the holidays. Instead, it's facing a nationwide boycott of its entire brand as the gift-buying season approaches and it becomes a focus of the national unease with Trump's improbable election.

Marketing experts said the company needs to act quickly to restore its image as a socially responsible company committed to progressive causes, environmental protection, a diverse workforce and its New England hometowns. New Balance has kept its five plants in Massachusetts and Maine while other footwear manufactures, including Nike, the industry giant, moved operations to countries like Vietnam and China.

“The (statement) New Balance put out in the wake of the most divisive election in U.S. history was horrible — horrible,” Scott Latham, professor of business strategy at the Manning School of Business at UMass Lowell, said of LeBretton's comment to The Wall Street Journal. Latham describes himself as a loyal New Balance customer and said the company up until now has been “a case study in social responsibility.”

“If they think this is going to blow over, that's an incorrect perception,” Latham said. “They need to do an aggressive, proactive campaign that micro-targets their customers. Runners World (magazine). Social media. New Balance customers are largely very active runners and they're committed to the brand because they share values with the brand.”

“To me, the messaging would be that New Balance has always been a socially responsible company,” Latham said. “(The ad campaign should say), 'We'll continue to support the things that represent our values. Our values are everything that Donald Trump isn't. Made in the USA. A diverse workforce. Giving back to the community. Environmental responsibility. Retraining workers.'”

Nancy Sterling, senior vice president of strategic communications for ML Strategies, a public relations and marketing firm in Boston, said New Balance needs to do more than launch another ad campaign. She suggested it re-name one of its product lines, or launch a new one, and call it something like the “Unite America” sneaker.

“The right direction is to try to emphasize the company's values and move away from the controversy,” Sterling said. She said the response to LeBretton's statement was an overreaction, but said there's been an overreaction to most issues since Trump's election last week.

“This is a whole new world for brands,” said Mark O'Toole, managing director of public relations at Eric Mower & Associates. “For now, any business that mentions Trump or appears aligned with him or his policies could alienate loyal customers.”

One business that saw that this week is Equity Residential, which owns three apartment towers on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive that — until Wednesday — bore the name “Trump Place” over their entrances. Workers removed the gold lettering after 600 tenants signed petitions demanding it. Equity Residential said the buildings will be renamed for their addresses at 140, 160 and 180 Riverside Drive.

U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat whose district includes Lawrence, agreed that New Balance needs to do more to quell the controversy it ignited. Tsongas is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would require the Defense Department to equip service members with footwear made in the United States, which likely would generate hundreds of thousands of orders annually for New Balance. She toured the New Balance factory in Lawrence last month.

“New Balance has a responsibility to respond to the public outcry regarding a comment made by one of their officials after the election, and which has since been misused by white supremacist organizations,” Tsongas said Wednesday. “I do not believe it speaks for the committed and talented New Balance workers I’ve met with on the factory floor.”

Meanwhile, as New Balance confronts what may be the biggest marketing headache in its 100-year history, it's been business as usual outside its factory and retail outlet in Lawrence. None of the customers headed in and out of the Union Street building on a recent morning said they were bothered by LeBretton's statement commending Trump.

“Shoes are shoes,” said Maurico Sosa, a Colombian national who lives in Methuen, as he left the store. “If I like it, I buy it.” 

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