Why New Balance feels heat for a comment about a Trump presidency

Many corporations have in recent years begun to advocate for social-liberal causes. The next four years may test their influence, and their commitment to that advocacy.

Kevin Wolf/AP Images for New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc.
In this 2012 photograph taken by AP Images for New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini leads a news conference on Capitol Hill with representatives from New England, as part of a campaign against the elimination of a tariff on imported shoes then under discussion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

The athletic shoe company New Balance has come under fire from social media users after an executive expressed optimism about the administration of President-elect Donald Trump in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week.

While discussing Mr. Trump's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade accord also opposed by Democrat Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, New Balance public-affairs vice president Matthew LeBretton told the newspaper that the Obama administration had “turned a deaf ear” to the company’s protests that the deal would hurt its shoe production by favoring competitors with plants overseas.

“[W]ith President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Mr. LeBretton said.

On Twitter, some users responded angrily, posting videos of New Balance shoes being burned, thrown in the trash, or tossed out of windows, forcing the company to issue an emailed clarification to Sole Collector, a sneaker site.

“As the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States, New Balance has a unique perspective on trade and trade policy in that we want to make more shoes in the United States, not less,” it wrote.

“New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prior to Election Day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.”

The reaction points to the unprecedented perils that corporations' public images face when it comes to how they speak about the president-elect. And as many corporations have taken an outspoken role in advocacy for social-liberal causes, most notably same-sex marriage, the next four years may pose unusual tests to the traditional benefactors of Republican tax policies.

The biggest sticking point may be the president-elect’s unpopularity with Millennials, a key demographic for many in the business world and one that is much more likely than older generations to evaluate products in the light of their social conscience, as Harry Bruinius of The Christian Science Monitor wrote in 2015.

“The days of standing completely on the sideline are disappearing,” Farah Parker, a corporate consultant with FD Parker & Associates in Los Angeles, told the Monitor then. “Businesses can no longer remain completely silent on social issues. As more corporations strive to create communities and not just consumers, the target audience now picks products based on quality and the company's cultural platforms.”

A handful of prominent investors whose names aren’t closely associated with a brand, including Carl Icahn and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, have applauded the arrival of Trump, notes the Atlantic. Others, such as Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, have pledged “an open mind” toward him, echoing comments by President Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

A few have mixed congratulations with more sharply turned phrases. Ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s acknowledged that the election had left “half of our country feeling sadness and shock” in an open letter to Trump, adding that it was committed “to stand with you if your work is toward building a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.” At least three NBA teams have stopped staying at Trump hotels, ESPN reported. And PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi evoked the fear and “mourning” felt by her non-white, women and LGBT employees in a post-election interview with The New York Times.

When asked about the language about women used during the election campaign, and in domestic violence scandals that have plagued the Pepsi-sponsored NFL, she responded:

“Forget the Pepsi brand – how dare we talk about women that way? Why do we talk that way about a whole group of citizens?”

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