Kanye West and the Double-Edged Sword of Influencer Partnerships

The success of Adidas and Gap's deals with the artist has come at a price

Kanye West has a love-hate relationship with the brands he partners with. It’s mostly hate if we are being honest.

The latest spats with Adidas and Gap are perfect examples.

West partnered with Adidas back in 2014, and signed a 10-year deal with Gap in 2020. Both brands have released popular products using the Yeezy name. But this summer, West took to social media to accuse both brands of stealing his designs before beginning a bizarre tirade against Adidas svp and agency veteran Daniel Cherry III. Gap, meanwhile, is taking heat for how it’s displaying Yeezy clothes, apparently at West’s request.

In short, he’s waging a PR war against both companies.

There’s no denying West can move products: Yeezy sneakers reached $1.7 billion in revenue in 2020, and the release of the Yeezy hoodie broke single-day sales records for Gap. However, success has come at a price for both brands.

Brands are increasingly finding themselves in tricky positions when their relationships with key partners go awry. How should brands approach the decisions to sign on a celebrity or influencer, and what should they do when a partner goes rogue?

Who’s advocating against partner deals?

Influencers can seem like pots of gold just waiting to be tapped. The rise of platforms like TikTok has created thousands of influencers who can sell products just as well as famous celebrities.

However, brands need to think twice about the deals they strike. The allure of likes and shares can cause bigger problems later on. Anyone who knows West could have predicted what Adidas and Gap are experiencing right now. In fact, his behavior with Adidas and Gap is the same as when he was with Nike.

Brands need to conduct an honest assessment if they have the experience required to handle the deals they envision. For example, Nike has had years of experience in dealing with high-profile stars like LeBron James and controversial political causes.

They navigate tricky situations and deal with divas. Brands must be wary of trying to copy what Nike does without similar in-house experience.

When considering deals, brands should assign internal devil’s advocates. The idea comes from the Catholic church, which assigns someone to argue against granting sainthood to high-profile individuals, such as past popes. This person is supposed to provide valid arguments to ensure the final decision goes through proper vetting.

Brands can get swept away in the excitement of record sales and catching the attention of new demographics, and avoid thinking through the long-term consequences.

What to do when a partner goes rogue?

Adidas and Gap likely have written contracts with West. The problem is they’re now stuck in a he said-they said situation. West can claim that executives are meeting without him, which may or may not be true. Either brand could say otherwise, but who will fans believe?

The situation requires delicate and deliberate action. Partners going rogue can happen, even in the best-vetted deals. You never know when a seemingly “safe” partner will be accused of sexual harassment, like Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler recently was, or when a change in strategy can cause serious harm to a brand like Radioshack’s weird social media strategy.

There are three decisions brands need to make when dealing with a rogue partner.

First, they need to determine the current and future damages. No brand wants to be on the receiving end of a negative social media blowup. Losing a partner may be better than making your online community angry.

Second, they need to explore if the relationship can be salvaged. If not, then brands need to end their deals quickly. There are, of course, issues such as existing product backlogs and upcoming launches. Brands need to have a clear idea of where they stand in the partnership.

Third, brands need to get ahead of the rogue partner with their own communication. The West situation is really a propaganda crisis. Companies cannot wait until things blow over—they need to protect their brand and bottom line. After all, both Adidas and Gap have product lines beyond Yeezy.

The companies have been quiet, perhaps hoping West will stop. However, they need to take control of the narrative or remove themselves from his sphere of influence altogether.

Be careful of the mirage of likes and shares

Influencers will continue to have outsize power over consumer behavior. Situations like what’s happening with Kanye West don’t mean brands should stop running influencer campaigns. Instead, they need to be more careful about the partnerships they develop. Stars may rise as quickly as they fall, especially in a world where algorithms can create fame.

Brands are walking through a desert full of mirages of likes, shares and sales. Some will prove to be real and highly profitable, while others will only bring disappointment. At the end of the day, brands need to decide what is in their best interest over the long term. Incredible short-term revenue may seem appealing until you find yourself where Adidas and Gap are at this moment.