Learn From Adidas' Mistake—Act Fast

The brand severing ties with Kanye West may have been too little, too late

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Adidas finally announced that it is parting ways with Ye, also known as Kanye West. The pressure had been mounting for weeks for Adidas to act, as Ye continued to use anti-Black and antisemitic hate speech in his social media channels and other outlets.

The Balenciaga fashion house, JP Morgan Chase, Gap, Vogue and Creative Artists Agency had all publicly ended their relationships with Ye. Footlocker and TJ Maxx removed Yeezy sneakers and clothing lines from their shelves. And Madame Tussauds in London removed his wax figure from the floor. With mounting pressure from consumers and the marketplace, Adidas finally ended its relationship with Ye as well.

Why did Adidas take so long to act? Why did it allow its partnership to continue while Ye continued to use hate speech? Why didn’t it follow the examples of other organizations who cut ties quickly?

Here are three lessons to learn from Adidas’ mistake and how you can act fast in a moment of crisis.

Do convene and pressure the key decision makers

Adidas had announced its partnership with Ye was under review when on Oct. 3, 2022, he wore a White Lives Matter shirt at Paris Fashion Week. He then threatened to “go death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” in a tweet, leading to his account being suspended. He went on to taunt Addias directly. On the Drink Champs podcast, in an episode that has been deleted, he said “I can say antisemitic things and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what?”

And yet, it took Adidas three weeks to cut ties with him.

As marketers, we recognize that partnerships with celebrities involve many parties, including cross-functional partners. We alone may not have the power to cut ties with a celebrity who is propagating hate.

But here’s what we can do: Convene the key decision-makers, providing important inputs from marketing, supply chain, corporate communications, agencies, finance and legal. From a legal perspective, internal teams and outside counsel likely have included non-disparagement and morality clauses in the contract. Include human resources as well to provide the voice of our employees.

Keep the pressure going to make a decision by providing daily updates on what else the celebrity has said or done, how the marketplace is responding and what consumers and employees are saying. Remind them the cost of saying and doing nothing could result in a boycott, ultimately costing the company much more in the long run.

Don’t wait for the social media storm to ensue

Early in my career, an internal corporate communications professional told me: “In times of crisis, it’s best not to do or say anything. All of this stuff blows over. People move onto the next thing. So we do nothing.” Unfortunately, too many leaders, and likely some of the key decision-makers at Adidas, continue to operate with this outdated mindset that no longer serves us well.

In our current digital age, consumers have a larger microphone than they ever had before. The stakes are high for brands to take a stand when injustice occurs. And when you don’t, consumers will be there to remind you every single minute of every single day that you have yet to do the right thing.

According to a 2022 Trust Barometer Special Report from Edelman, 59% of consumers say if they don’t trust the company behind the brand, they will stop buying. For marketers, this is an important reminder: Don’t wait for the social media storm to ensue to convince you and your leadership to do the right thing. Make the right decision before anyone ever asks you what you plan to do.

Do share next steps internally and externally

Adidas finally released a statement which said it “[does] not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech” and said that Ye’s recent comments were “unacceptable, hateful and dangerous.” The company went on to say Ye violated the company’s “values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness” and they were ending the partnership effective immediately. This includes ending production of Yeezy branded products and stopping all payments to Ye and his companies.

Unfortunately, Adidas failed to mention in its statement that Ye didn’t just propagate antisemitism, but also anti-Blackness. The company now has work to do in rebuilding trust with both the Black and Jewish communities and to share externally how it plans to do this.

Finally, Adidas continues to face pressure internally from its employees. A viral LinkedIn post by Sarah Camhi, Adidas trade marketing director, stated, “As a member of the Jewish community, I can no longer stay silent on behalf of the brand that employs me. Not saying anything, is saying everything.”

She went on to say the company has remained silent not just externally but internally as well. She mentioned that Adidas had dropped athletes for being difficult to work with and for using steroids but seemed unwilling to denounce hate speech. “Until Adidas takes a stand, I will not stand with Adidas.”

Marketers, don’t forget that our employees are often our forgotten consumers. They can become our fiercest and most loyal advocates or be the first ones to call us out.

For Adidas, there’s long road ahead to rebuild trust not just with its consumers but with its employees as well.