The candidates for president are no longer running, but a company that produces running shoes is now caught up in the nation’s political debate. A comment by an executive at the athletic shoe company New Balance has drawn condemnation from customers on the left, and an unwanted endorsement from a neo-Nazi.
It all started with a quote to a newspaper reporter. New Balance makes some of its shoes here in the U.S. and has consistently opposed the trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which President Obama supports. New Balance has said the Administration promised to consider them for a military shoe contract if the company kept quiet about TPP. But the shoe contract never materialized.
And that’s why New Balance exec Matthew LeBretton told the Wall Street Journal, "The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction."
In this polarized time, that was enough to set off a protest – including videos on YouTube of people burning or throwing out their sneakers.
“Well, we know where these are going. These are going in the [expletive] trash," a man said in one video. "[Expletive] you New Balance,” he added. “New Balance, I heard you just endorsed Donald Trump," another said in a YouTube video. "So peace out.”
There's also a video of someone attempting to flush a pair down the toilet.
“Having a story taken out of context and then misrepresented around the world has been very challenging for us,” said Amy Dow, who manages communications for New Balance. “We’ve looked to respond quickly and to try to put forward an accurate representation of the comments that were made and the context in which they were given.”
A written statement from the company says before election day, they publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. All three candidates came out against the TPP.
But with the initial backlash, the headache was just getting started for the company. Last weekend, a white supremacist website endorsed New Balance as the official shoes of white people.
Rohit Deshpande is a marketing professor - down the road from New Balance headquarters - at Harvard Business School. “It’s not only the company that creates the image or the meaning of the brand. It’s the community that creates the meaning,” he said.
And in an age of social media, it’s all too easy for a company to lose control of that brand when things spin out of control. Deshpande said the reaction from liberal customers isn’t surprising. “When it’s such a politically charged time, when the nation is so riven, to say something that is easily perceived as a political endorsement, I think that was really bad timing,” he said.
But there is a way for the company to reclaim its brand identity, he said. “Being much more explicit about the values of the company, and I think they’ve begun this by saying we are a very inclusive organization.”
“New Balance acted very quickly to disavow any connection to anyone or anything that supports or promotes bigotry or hatred,” said Amy Dow of New Balance.
That message seems to have done the trick for customers like David Williams, shopping at the New Balance factory outlet store in Boston.
“I’ve never thought about New Balance being a white person or a black person’s product. It’s just, you know, we’re all humans, it’s for all of us,” Williams said.
Of course, he came there to shop. But New Balance executives are hoping that’s how a lot more people are feeling.