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Chanel, Barneys face flak for pushing brand envelope

October 25, 2012


Luxury marketers often take creative liberty with campaigns to build the coveted buzz-factor among their target audience. However, two recent instances from Chanel and Barneys New York show that public perception could change the meaning of a campaign.

Circumstances this week are turning two diverse luxury brand marketing campaigns into the talk of the town. The negative thoughts stemming from these efforts do not seen to hurt either brand in the long-term, experts say, but attention could be drawn from the purpose of the campaign – to strengthen brand recognition among affluent consumers at a pivotal time of year.

“In an increasingly crowded media world, all brands need work hard to command 'share of attention' and that sometimes means taking some risks,” said Steven Dennis, president of SageBerry Consulting LLC, Dallas, TX. “The key is to deeply understand the consumer and to stay true to the brand essence and positioning."

Making headlines

Two unique instances of negative press are floating through the media circuit this week.

For instance, French label Chanel began to receive criticism here and there for its new Brad Pitt campaign released early last week (see story).

The criticism culminated in a spoof on NBC network’s comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live.

Meanwhile, much attention from the media is centered on Barneys.

The retailer is being criticized for altering the bodies of Disney characters – mainly Minnie Mouse – by elongating them to mimic runway models. This is part of Barneys' Electric Holiday moving art exhibit that will be displayed in its Madison Avenue flagship store holiday windows (see story).

Barneys' Minnie Mouse character 

In fact, Los Angeles dance teacher and activist Ragen Chastain began a petition on to raise awareness for her distaste for the program, according to Racked.

There were 136,267 petition signatures as of press deadline.

On Monday, Oct. 22, Barneys and Disney released a joint statement to the New York Daily News.

"We are saddened that activists have repeatedly tried to distort a lighthearted holiday project in order to draw media attention to themselves," both parties said.

"They have deliberately ignored previously released information clearly stating this promotion is a three-minute ‘moving art’ video featuring traditional Minnie Mouse in a dreamlike sequence set in Paris where she briefly walks the runway as a model and then happily awakens as her normal self wearing the very same designer dress from the fashion show."

It could be said that these marketers each took a risk to create a campaign that would have a large reach among the affluent audience.

At its core, marketing luxury products is a creative process, per Elizabeth DeMaso, managing partner of Brenes Co., New York.

Marketers often seek the most original expression of the brand personality to share.

"It often results in pushing limits to stand out," Ms. DeMaso said. "Limit-pushing is always associated with a level of liability and marketers need to consider the risk or reward to determine their appetite for the potential backlash."

No harm done

Negative press is not a large issue in the luxury industry, but it does happen. 

If a brand feels as though it has made a mistake, the best thing to do is to admit it, apologize for it and get back to basics, per SageBerry Consulting’s Mr. Dennis.

“Sometimes the chatter, even if it tilts negative, raises the awareness and interest in a brand so it can be a net positive,” Mr. Dennis said. “But when it goes too far it can definitely tarnish a brand's image.”

Moreover, the consequences of bad press are related to how bad the news is, per Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, Stephens, PA.

These two instances are not likely to do any permanent damage to Chanel or Barneys. However, the brands’ public relations teams should not take the criticism too lightly or too seriously.

“Barneys' artistic  interpretation of Disney characters does not necessarily have to be interpreted as creating bad body image for girls, and Saturday Night Live’s and all of the other spoofs of the Brad Pitt Chanel commercial – well, that just had to be done,” Ms. Danziger said.

Public relations

Chanel took a chance in its Brad Pitt campaign by not only bringing in a male spokesperson, but in the message presented, per Brenes Co.'s Ms. DeMaso.

"While the brand has received quite a bit of mockery, the fact is that a week and a half later, it is still being talked about," Ms. DeMaso said. "The real test will come when Chanel is able to look at sales to see if and how the effort affected its numbers."

However, the Barneys-related news topic is not only up for discussion, but consumers are becoming angry.

"With activist groups speaking out against it, Barneys is now in full-throttle public relations crisis mode," Ms. DeMaso said. "That is not where any marketer wants to be, especially when it comes to holiday marketing."

That said, reactions from luxury brands to negative press only magnify the story, per Al Ries, chairman of marketing consultancy Ries & Ries, Roswell, GA.

Instead, a brand should find a new idea to publicize.

Additionally, marketers should continue to push the limits through marketing campaigns despite the threat of negative press.

“While no one wants bad publicity,  but it is not always as damaging as one might think,” Mr. Ries said.

“Look at the Monica Lewinsky scandal – short-term it was damaging to Bill Clinton, but not in the long term,” he said. “Today, he is the most popular politician in the world.

“Even negative publicity can help a brand by calling attention to it.”

Final Take
Tricia Carr, editorial assistant on Luxury Daily, New York