What do you do when your brand is hijacked? Lessons from Skittles and Donald Trump Jr

Skittles

Source: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

By Dr Anne Lane and Dr Kim Johnston

Donald Trump Jr recently stirred up a rainbow of reactions on Twitter when he compared refugees to Skittles lollies. Trump Jr. used the analogy to suggest that allowing large numbers of refugees into a country was like grabbing a handful of the lollies, knowing that perhaps three of them could kill you.

The insinuation that these lethal lollies could be equated with dangerous extremists hiding among refugees has unleashed a wave of condemnation from around the world. But it does raise an interesting question for organisations. What do you do when – like Skittles – your brand is hijacked?

We’re not talking here about the lucrative role of product placement, where companies pay large sums of money to feature in the latest movies or TV series – think Nike’s self-lacing shoes in Back to the Future, and Pizza Hut’s prominent role in Wayne’s World. Nor are we talking about those rare instances where a product becomes the inadvertent hero of a news story, such as the lost skier who attributed his survival for three days and nights in the Scottish Highlands to the ingestion of a single Mars Bar.

What happened to Skittles was the hijacking of its brand. Donald Trump Jr used the multi-coloured and widely-recognised lollies in his efforts to promote his father’s agenda without the permission or sanction of Mars, the makers of Skittles. No-one asked Mars if it was okay to do this as – presumably – they knew the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Trump Jr went ahead anyway, perhaps because he thought the analogy would work so well with Trump Sr’s supporters (although no research currently exists to establish a link between Trump voters and Skittles consumption).

Mars has spent a lot of time and money building up an image of Skittles as a fun treat for teenagers, using the somewhat-hippyish tagline “Taste the rainbow”. Trump Jr’s linking of this innocuous product with the Trump camp’s highly contentious views on immigration might sound like a recipe for disaster for the candy producer. And it’s not the first time Skittles has found itself mixed up with controversy and social movements. In 2012, Trayvon Martin was gunned down by police in the US who thought he was carrying a gun in his pocket. The ‘gun’ turned out to be a packet of Skittles. For some time after that, Skittles were left in piles on street corners as a symbol of social disquiet and dissatisfaction over police behaviour.

Regardless of whether it happened spontaneously as a mark of community concern, or strategically as part of a monumental political campaign, Skittles has twice found its brand was being hijacked. In both cases, Skittles responded in a similar way – and their response provides a valuable lesson for other organisations that might find themselves in a similar position.

Skittles could have responded by:

  • Making a formal – perhaps legal – complaint, seeking a retraction of Trump Jr’s use of their product, and a commitment that it wouldn’t be repeated. While this might have been the first avenue Skittles considered, it was probably just as well they didn’t continue along that path. Responding to challenges in this way can seriously backfire, cost a fortune, and not end the way you might like (McLibel anyone?).
  • Choosing to make a strong statement against the use of their brand, and/or spoken out against the point of view they might otherwise be seen as espousing. This is the line Jimmy Barnes took when he found out extremist groups like Reclaim Australia were using his songs at their rallies. However, this course of action runs the risk of providing the oxygen of publicity to the very discussion you’re trying to damp down.
  • Capitalising on the social media interest in Trump Jr’s comments by integrating them into a flash marketing campaign. We saw something similar to this when fried chicken restaurants posted Tweets offering Game of Thrones character The Hound a delivery of their products after he stated his desire to eat “…every [expletive] chicken in this room”. Taking this approach would have been fraught with danger for Skittles though as it would probably have been seen as very tacky to spin their hijacking for commercial benefit.

So what did Skittles do?

The brand posted a very restrained response on social media, stating that “Skittles are candy: refugees are people. It’s an inappropriate analogy. We respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Elegant in its simplicity and parsimonious use of language, this response has been well received by social media denizens. More importantly, it walks the fine line between protecting the brand and not upsetting some powerful people. It might just be the ultimate ‘snackdown’ for brand hijackers.

Dr Anne Lane is a subject area coordinator in the QUT Business School at the Queensland University of Technology and Dr Kim Johnston is a senior lecturer in the QUT Business School. Both are experts in advertising, marketing and public relations. 

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