Photo by Rob Wilson on Unsplash

Perhaps a timely follow-up to my last post about originality in a market that seems saturated, last week, my LinkedIn newsletter included the latest Axios-Harris Poll on most reputable companies.

According to John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll:

“In the case of both Patagonia and Chick-fil-A, Americans praise them for their consistency, even if they don’t agree with their politics. In a highly polarized society, companies who speak out will court division unless they can earn the ‘optics of their principles:’ That their actions reflect their values and culture.”

And it got me thinking about a brand I recently broke up with.

Just before Valentine’s Day, I navigated over to the website of my husband’s favorite (at the time) running shorts brand. They’re known for loud, funky patterns on very short shorts, and I thought it might be funny to get him a new pair with a Valentine’s Day theme (you know, like lips or x’s and o’s). As I was scrolling through the options, I was stunned to find a pair of “Thin Blue Line” shorts.

First, let’s talk about what the “Thin Blue Line” American flag is and what it means.

It’s a a black-and-white version of the American flag, but with one blue stripe under the field of stars to represent solidarity with police. This excellent article on The Marshall Project’s website explains that “those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers. But it has also been flown by white supremacists, appearing next to Confederate flags at the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.”

Now, more than ever (and a year after George Floyd’s murder), the Thin Blue Line flag does make a political statement and sends the message that blue lives matter, and they matter more than black ones.

So, when I saw this shorts brand peddling the design (not to mention a pair with the Don’t Tread on Me flag, which these days represents gun rights and limited government), I was surprised. But why? I realized that I tend to assume that the brands I love care about the same things I do. I mean, that’s part of why I love them, right? Something about their branding, their imaging, and their messaging resonated with me, so I assumed they were like me.

Lesson One: As consumers, we need to check our assumptions about why we love the brands we love. (That is, if we care about these things, and I’m finding that more and more people do.)

When I told my husband about the shorts, he immediately emailed the brand to share his concerns. The CEO responded that they asked their police and first responder buddies about the design and they all supported it. There was no mention about whether they got feedback from black and brown customers or stakeholders which speaks volumes, though I wish the CEO had been more forthright about it.

A few weeks later, I was telling some friends—and fellow customers of this brand—about what I found, and one of my friends brushed it off, saying, “All that means is that they’ll take anybody’s money.” Interestingly, I have yet to find a pair of shorts with a “Black Lives Matter” or “No Justice, No Peace” design.

Here’s the thing: Even if they did have both Thin Blue Line and Black Lives Matter shorts, they would lose me as customer because they’re not telling me who they are or what they stand for except money.

Lesson Two: As a brand, it’s better to take a stand and show us who you are. Yes, the shorts company lost me as a customer, but now I know what they stand for. The most reputable companies do it and are rewarded for it.

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