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Why Fashion Brands Were Silent After the US Capitol Storming

Even as consumers expect their favourite brands to align with their values and take a stand on socio-political issues, there was little for fashion companies to gain in wading into America’s latest crisis.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, enter the US Capitol. Getty Images.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, enter the US Capitol. Getty Images.

Soon after a costumed, right-wing mob, inflamed by online memes and outgoing US President Donald Trump, stormed the seat of the country’s democracy last Tuesday to stop the certification of the 2020 election results, many companies took swift action to protect their brands. Almost immediately, many paused their marketing activities for fear of appearing next to coverage or commentary on what President-elect Joe Biden gravely called “insurrection.”

The same day, CEOs from technology to finance issued statements on the matter. Apple chief executive Tim Cook lamented a “sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history” and called for accountability. BlackRock chairman Larry Fink called the Capitol invasion “an assault on our nation, our democracy and the will of the American people.”

Even the Republican-leaning National Association of Manufacturers issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing the violence: “This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule.” And soon, companies from Amazon to Nike to Goldman Sachs had vowed to pause financial contributions to legislators who voted against certifying the election.

But few major brands rushed to make big consumer-facing statements.


Patagonia, no stranger to taking political positions, was one of the only fashion and apparel companies that issued a statement to its fans, condemning the “assault,” calling for the removal of Trump and noting the “double standard” in the security response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the storming of the Capitol.

In recent years, leading brands like Nike and Gucci have reversed years of corporate neutrality, taking a public stance on sensitive topics from racism to gun control. Most famously, Nike embraced polarising American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the national anthem, which is played before sporting events across America, to protest the police brutality and wider social injustice suffered by Black people.

At the heart of the shift is the rising spending power of millennials, who expect the brands they love to embrace values that align with their own and take a stand on important socio-political issues as they lose faith in traditional institutions like government and the media. Millennial employees have similar expectations of the brands they work for at a time when attracting and retaining talent and fostering a strong company culture are more important than ever.

Never was this shift more visible than in the avalanche of support from major brands for Black Lives Matter when protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd, another flashpoint in a deeply divided nation.

And yet, when a mob of white nationalists stormed the US Capitol last week, many of the same brands stayed silent, save for quiet statements pledging to withhold political donations. Why?

Some may have become more cautious after being burned when their statements supporting Black Lives Matter and other causes were seen as inauthentic, self-serving and, in some cases, at odds with their own internal cultures, attracting social media backlash.

In November, Gap was ridiculed when it posted (and then deleted) a tweet featuring a branded, half-red, half-blue hoodie — a reference to America’s political divide — with the caption: “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward.”

Others may have been wary of commenting on every new crisis at a volatile moment in history.


But for many, the underlying calculus was rooted in the distinction between politics and values. The killing of George Floyd was widely seen as above politics. It was not about being a Republican or a Democrat, or even an American. It was about fundamental human values that are global and universal in nature, transcending nations and their party politics in a way that the Capitol invasion — inextricably linked to Trumpism and the 2020 election — did not.

While universal values are not always universally shared, they are less fraught with the tension and complexity that can make party politics a minefield for brands. Critically, they can also be more easily activated in a way that is positive, constructive and aligns with a brand’s own framework of values. For example, Nike’s decision to support Kaepernick’s protest underscored its commitment to equality and aligned with its underlying belief in the universalism of sport.

Which brings us to the matter of aspiration. Fashion brands ultimately sell more than just clothes, shoes or bags. They sell a better you. As such, their worldview is fundamentally optimistic. Their brand storytelling is typically uplifting and empowering.

It’s far more natural and advantageous for them to stand for something positive — whether it’s racial equality or a cleaner planet — than stand against the ugliness of a reactionary mob.

Many brand managers will have watched the Capitol invasion unfold in real-time and, despite pressure from employees, quickly realised there was no positive brand story for them to tell.



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