Steve Barrett on PR: Fred Perry fights back against extremist adoption

The iconic British clothing brand has halted sales of its black and yellow shirt in the U.S. due to its uptake by neo-Nazi thugs – but how should marketers respond when their brands are subverted?

Gwen Stefani is a positive reflection of Fred Perry's brand values. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Gwen Stefani is a positive reflection of Fred Perry's brand values. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Walk down La Croisette in a normal year at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and you can tell who’s in the British commercial media and advertising crowd because they’re usually wearing Fred Perry gear.

It’s a brand much-beloved by men and women of a certain age who grew up around the ska, two-tone, mod, punk, anti-racist skinhead and northern soul musical movements popular in the late seventies and early eighties.

Terry Hall from The Specials, Suggs from Madness, Pauline Black from The Selecter and lead character Jimmy from the film Quadrophenia were just a few of the fashion role models for British youth of the time who wore Fred Perry.

Later on, artists including Amy Winehouse, Damon Albarn from Blur and Gorillaz, Freddie Mercury from Queen and Gwen Stefani also embraced the style, especially the black polo shirt with yellow trim and the brand’s signature laurel wreath logo. The brand was also widely adopted by elements of the gay community.

But what happens when a far-right or other extremist group adopts your brand?

That’s a challenge the British clothing brand has dealt with on and off over the years since it was founded in 1952, specifically through associations with right-wing skinheads and violent soccer fans.

But this increased in recent times when an obscure bunch of self-described "western chauvinists" in the U.S. that have already had far too much publicity than they deserve adopted the brand as their uniform - especially the aforementioned black and yellow shirt and general usage of the laurel wreath logo.

The issue gained further prominence this week following the first presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and his challenger Joe Biden, when Trump was asked to denounce white supremacy by moderator Chris Wallace. Trump's refusal to equivocally do so and his response that the right-wing group should "stand back and stand by" became the primary online storyline from the debate.

Data for the September 29 and 30 period produced by tracking firm NewsWhip showed there were 3.24 million combined social media interactions on stories about Trump's comments and the ensuing furor, 34% higher than the next biggest topic.

The profile of this group went through the roof, often accompanied by images of members wearing Fred Perry clothing, prompting the company to discontinue sales in the U.S. and Canada of the black and yellow shirt that has become the thugs' uniform.

The company also issued a statement emphasizing that it in no way supports or has any affiliation with the group or its beliefs, noting: “It is incredibly frustrating that this group has appropriated our black/yellow/yellow twin tipped shirt and subverted our laurel wreath to their own ends.”

It added further context, including this:

“The Fred Perry shirt is a piece of British subcultural uniform, adopted by various groups of people who recognize their own values in what it stands for. We are proud of its lineage and what the laurel wreath has represented for over 65 years: inclusivity, diversity and independence.

“The black/yellow/yellow twin tipped shirt has been an important part of that uniform since its introduction in the late 70s, and has been adopted generation after generation by various subcultures, without prejudice.”

Fred Perry said it will not sell the shirt in the U.S. and Canada again until it is satisfied the association with this group has ended. It is working with lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of its brand.

While the brand may have suffered from some negative associations over the years, its true soul - and certainly its modern public image - is one of diversity, multiculturalism, globalization, coolness and good vibes.

The communication ended with a statement about founder Fred Perry and the links being made with right-wing extremists by its chairman John Flynn from back in 2017:

“Fred was the son of a working class socialist MP who became a world tennis champion at a time when tennis was an elitist sport. He started a business with a Jewish businessman from Eastern Europe. It’s a shame we even have to answer questions like this. No, we don’t support the ideals or the group that you speak of. It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with.”

However, in an opinion piece for our PRWeek colleagues in the U.K., Engine Mischief creative director Greg Double says the U.S. black and yellow shirt ban was a missed opportunity by the brand to change the rules of the game and go on the offensive. He believes the reaction “concedes defeat to far-right groups and puts Fred Perry fans in an awkward position.”

He worries that if he is seen wearing Fred Perry gear people might now assume he is “some knuckle-dragging, gun-toting Neanderthal” and that the story is giving a lot of attention to the objectionable group and allowing it to control the narrative.

Double suggests Fred Perry could instead have returned fire by still selling the black and yellow polo shirt and diverting all proceeds from its sale to Black Lives Matter or another anti-racist group.

He adds that the initiative could be launched with the shirt modeled by leading black activists, women and original skinheads. So every time a neo-fascist buys that shirt they are actively funding anti-racism. It would build on the true roots of the brand's modern values of non-violence, inclusivity and, basically, everything contrary to the views of the thugs.

It’s an interesting alternative strategy and tries to regain control of the narrative, rather than the defensive mode of imposing a ban that, in practice, is going to be very hard to police.

Fashion brands help people make iconic statements about their beliefs and are often customized to do so. It’s part of the attraction of fashion and has been an intrinsic part of youth culture for generations. Think about Black Lives Matters messages on basketball players’ shoes as one example.

But, as Fred Perry has discovered, sometimes they can be coopted by groups with which the brand wants nothing to do.

Four years ago, sports brand New Balance was endorsed by neo-Nazis that proclaimed it "The Official Shoes of White People" because it was manufactured solely in the U.S. Its “Made in America” brand positioning had been adopted and subverted by white nationalists.

In these febrile and divisive times the issue is going to arise more and more, whether by accident or as a consequence of brands engaging in discourse on social and political issues.

How would you have handled the Fred Perry scenario if it was your brand or one of your agency’s clients? I’d love to hear what you think.

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