How should brands deal with unwanted fans?

Influencer wrangling is now a crucial part of any brand management role. And this bit is relatively straightforward: find people who people like who can spread the word about your product. But what happens when the wrong people get in on the action?

Last month, the UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was forced to apologise after wearing Adidas Samba trainers in a Downing Street interview, prompting fans of the brand to claim he’d ruined them for everyone. In the apology he claimed to be a lifelong devotee of the brand, sending fans even further into a spiral of social media panic over the trainers, which unproblematically adorned the feet of Bella Hadid, Rihanna and Harry Styles.

Every move, every association, can either elevate a brand to new heights of coolness or send it plummeting into the abyss of unpopularity. “Brand value is generally determined by attributes such as innovation, originality, and uniqueness. What makes a brand cool is something much more ethereal: the intricate web of associations and perceptions that consumers form with brands,” says Dominic Dwight, strategy and innovation director at Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, makers of Yorkshire Tea. Yorkshire Tea had its own Rishi moment back in 2020 when the PM was pictured enjoying a cup of the popular brew. The backlash was brutal.

“It was completely unexpected,” Dwight laughs, “as with pretty much every ‘celebrity’ mention we get, we had no hand in it.” Most of the time, he says, public response on social media to the brand is really positive. “Usually, the worst case scenario is a lacklustre response. With Rishi’s pic, I think we knew it would be provocative, because the whole discourse around politics had become so polarised and toxic – so our response, as it would be with anything that might generate negativity, was simply to let it go unmentioned.”