Somewhere in Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany, there’s a team of PR and Communications professionals who have just been through the toughest week of their careers. It was their job to try and crash-land the Adidas brand after Kanye West’s partnership sent their reputation into a tailspin.
The Story in a Nutshell
The story began way back in September, when Kanye (now known by the name “Ye”) criticized the German footwear company in interviews and on social media. He had publicly called out CEO Kasper Rorsted, posted pictures of Adidas board members, accused the company of not giving him enough control over the Yeezy sneaker line and told CNBC “they were copying my ideas.”
Media really started paying attention on October 3, when the artist turned up at Paris Fashion Week alongside right-wing provocateur Candace Owens wearing “White Lives Matter” t-shirts. Data gathered by NewsWhip showed an uptick in supportive stories on conservative news sites like Daily Wire and Breitbart in the days that followed.
On October 6, Adidas responded by announcing it had put its relationship with West “under review.”
In the days immediately following, West unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic comments on social media, culminating in his appearance on Drink Champs, a hip-hop community podcast on October 16, where he said: “I can say anti-Semitic things, and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what? Now what?”
On October 25 — months after the fighting between West and Adidas had started and weeks after Tweeting that he would go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” and lashing out at the “Jewish media,” — Adidas finally released a statement dropping the artist and — in the process — kicked him off the Forbes billionaires’ list after his net worth dropped from $2 billion to $400 million.
As someone who has written hundreds of statements and managed PR crisis communications over a long career, I can imagine that dozens of people within Adidas – from legal teams, to senior execs and the CEO – would have been looming over the shoulders of the writing team as they pulled together the statement. But quite frankly, the writing team should never have been in such a horrible position. Instead, Adidas broke three cardinal rules of PR that – if unbroken – would have saved the brand and its writing team.
Rule 1: Be Truthful
Brands love a celebrity endorsement until the wind of public opinion changes direction. Well, you didn’t have to be a meteorologist to predict West’s winds would blow south fast.
In Adidas’ statement, they wrote: “Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous….”
But let’s rewind that clock for a minute. Adidas could have seen the hate speech writing on the wall way back in 2013 when they first partnered with the rapper after his split with Nike. Make no mistake, Kanye may go by a different name in 2022, but we knew who he was in 2013.
Nine years ago, right around the time West started working with Adidas, he told a radio interviewer that: “People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people.”
Adidas knew about West’s self-admitted antisemitism years ago. So it rings hollow when Adidas says it “doesn’t tolerate antisemitism” when, in fact, they have been tolerating, platforming – and financing – West’s views for nearly a decade.
Adding insult to injury, Adidas’ statement telegraphed to investors and the market what the expected fallout will be in sales: “This is expected to have a short-term negative impact of up to €250 million on the company’s net income in 2022 given the high seasonality of the fourth quarter.”
But wait just a minute: Adidas stock was already down 64% in 2022. Sure, the fight with West didn’t help that, but the company was already facing declining sales and has been missing quarterly targets. What better way to hide an ongoing slump than to tie it to a strong, moral stand?
Adidas should never have signed West. Instead, they turned a blind eye, misled the public, and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
Rule 2: Study the Public
Ye lit up the news between Oct. 3rd – 6th with his “White Lives Matter” t-shirt and antisemitic tweets, and reporters had something to say about that. NewsWhip reports indicate in October, there have been more than 29.2k stories and north of 3.6 million engagements. And those numbers continue to rise.
Celebrities and fans took to social media immediately. And it wasn’t just the public calling for a reckoning; brands like The Gap and Balenciaga dropped the rapper. And Balenciaga’s CEO immediately appealed to Apple and Spotify to drop the artist and for other brands to do the same.
And while controversy comes as easily to Ye as offending Taylor Swift fans, Adidas should have easily seen that this one would earn West a Mel Gibson-level cancelling.
But still, Adidas continued to mull it over.
Which definitely brings us to the third cardinal rule broken.
Rule 3: Move Fast
Ironically, for a company specializing in shoes made for speed, Adidas couldn’t have dragged its feet more. Adidas took 22 days – 22 days! – from the t-shirt and tweets to finally deciding to drop West.
To put that into perspective for anyone playing at home, you can walk from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in half the time it takes a multinational brand to realize they shouldn’t do business with a white supremacist.
Adidas took so long that finally, employees and former executives at the brand took to social media, demanding the company respond. Adidas’ director of trade marketing Sarah Camhi wrote on her LinkedIn page, “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.”
Her post condemning the brand alone received more than 32,000 engagements.
Immediately responding to a crisis is absolutely the 101 required reading of Crisis Communications. Because the longer a brand stays silent, the more the public believes they have something to hide – and if you give the media all the time in the world to find it, they will.
In the case of Adidas, the brand gave the media plenty of time to reactivate a story the company has long tried to put behind it: the complicated relationship it had with Nazi Germany through its founders, brothers Adolf (“Adi”) and Rudolf Dassler.
Given the nature of West’s scandal, it certainly wasn’t ideal for Adidas to be marched down that memory lane.
Adidas shouldn’t have signed West in 2013. At a minimum, they should have cut him loose immediately in September 2022, and the company hasn’t acknowledged any of that. Instead, they shuffled their feet, waited too long, and put out a statement that was trite when it should have been truthful.
But the saga isn’t over for Adidas yet – and they know it. Their statement signals as much: “Adidas is the sole owner of all design rights to existing products as well as previous and new colorways under the partnership.”
Adidas and West – brought together by bad decision-making – are about to enter a legal battle, from which I don’t predict any winners will emerge.