Donna Karan walked out onto the red carpet recently at the CinéFashion Film Awards in Los Angeles and immediately stepped in a big, stinking pile of it. When asked about the allegations of sexual misconduct by her friend Harvey Weinstein, she instinctively jumped to his defense: “We have to look at ourselves [and think], How do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it? By presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?”
In one fell swoop, Karan went from being a champion of women to blaming them for instigating these abhorrent attacks. It sounded much like Weinstein’s own excuse delivered in what was supposed to be an apology sent to The New York Times: “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”
The media, social and traditional, erupted with the news of Karan’s faux pas, which she tried to walk back the next day. “I made a statement that unfortunately is not representative of how I feel or what I believe,” she said in a statement delivered through an intermediary. “I have spent my life championing women. My life has been dedicated to dressing and addressing the needs of women, empowering them and promoting equal rights.” But she followed with the kicker “my statements were taken out of context.”
Oh my! This apology ― delivered by an intermediary, not by Karan herself ― simply didn’t ring true. The statements were not “taken out of context.” The video proves it: We can see her original comments were how she felt and what she believed regarding these instances concerning her friend Weinstein, if not her feelings or beliefs on sexual harassment in general. The specter of hypocrisy couldn’t be ignored.
The social media onslaught continued unabated. Retail Dive reported that Brandwatch found online mentions of Donna Karan increased by more than 37,000% from Sunday through Tuesday and that 67% of those mentions were categorized as largely unfavorable.
A grassroots #BoycottDKNY petition calling for Nordstrom to drop the brand was launched, gaining 4.4 million impressions during the study period. So far, over 28,000 people have signed on.
Macy’s, too, is on the firing lines. It recently reached an agreement to be the exclusive department store distributor of DKNY ― Karan’s more affordable fashion brand ―starting in February 2018. Further, Macy’s planned to build out lifestyle DKNY shop-in-shops in selected Macy’s stores.
In the case of Karan, she is no longer part of the namesake business she founded. It’s currently held by G-III Apparel Group, which paid $670 million to LVMH in December 2016 to acquire the company and the Donna Karan and DKNY brands, after LVMH bought the company from Karan in 2000 for $450 million. G-III also holds licenses for other namesake brands, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Karl Lagerfeld and Kenneth Cole, along with licenses for the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL and more than 140 U.S. colleges and universities. And it is the official licensee for the Ivanka Trump brand, giving it firsthand experience in managing controversial brand names.
In the acquisition of Donna Karan and DNKY, G-III was making a huge bet on the power of the Donna Karan name, with plans “to relaunch Donna Karan as an aspirational luxury brand that will be priced above DKNY and targeted to fine department stores nationwide,” according to its 2017 annual report.
Since then, Karan has kept her hand in the fashion business, using her solid reputation and store of good will to build a new company, Urban Zen, based on a philosophy of combining “philanthropy and commerce.”
Danger When The Personal And Corporate Get Confused
Karan’s defense of Weinstein is all too human. Businesses are made up of people, and anywhere and anytime people are involved, mistakes are going to happen. Karan’s comments put her in direct conflict with her brand’s identity, its consciousness and its core values, in which many parties have a stake, including G-III, Nordstrom, Macy’s and Urban Zen.
Karan carries a huge weight on her shoulders. She is the embodiment of the brand. And brands exist in another sphere entirely. “A brand is a sum total of its beliefs and values, and that the reason people pick brands is because they align emotionally with a similar set of values and beliefs,” Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy, told Retail Dive. “Then we have had those values and beliefs shaken all over here.”
Clearly, we live in a divisive time, ripe with social, cultural and political issues that the people who make up businesses that are the guardians of brands feel strongly about. Too frequently, those people feel compelled to share their views, ignoring the implications to the corporations and the brands involved. With social media and the 24/7 news cycle, it’s become all too easy for the personal to cross over into the corporate, resulting in damage to brands that should be above all this.
Complicating matters further is that branding has evolved to be so values-laden today. Back in the “Mad Man” era, branding was far simpler and encompassed a logo, a tagline and positioning intended to fix the brand in people’s minds and make sales. Back in the day, branding was objective. Brands had to do what they promised to do, but they didn’t need the deep, rich, all-encompassing values that they require today. As a result, branding has become more personal and subjective.
Donna Karan, the person, is the keeper of Donna Karan, the brand. In the Weinstein flap, Donna Karan, the person, took the reins and abdicated the greater responsibility she had to preserve the integrity of Donna Karan, the brand. Her statement on the red carpet was heartfelt, but her apology wasn’t. It was delivered in a corporate statement in corporate speak and was wholly lacking in the authentic emotion that was required.
Regarding the future of the Donna Karan brand, I think we will find that Americans by and large are a forgiving bunch. But that forgiveness will be granted only when Karan steps out personally and asks emotionally for it. Until then, the many stakeholders in the Donna Karan brand are on hold. They simply can’t recover the damage done until Karan herself makes good.
The lessons for corporations in this stinking mess are many. Businesses must understand the responsibilities of maintaining the integrity of their brands and the values that they stand for. Too many brands are in danger of getting caught up in the culture wars, giving too much room for people’s emotions to take the lead when corporate objectivity and balance are needed. The American consumer market is growing more diverse, and brands must maintain the favor of customers of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and political affiliations. Sometimes well-intentioned actions can alienate key constituencies of a brand. And today, thanks to the power of social media, those alienated constituencies are pushing back.
As branding has become more personal, the need for brand guardians to keep the brand pure and keep corporate actions above the fray is essential. For example, people don’t necessarily have to believe in global warming, but we all share a belief that air pollution is a menace and should be minimized. Brands should stick to shared values, rather than push a more controversial agenda. In the case of sexual harassment, there is no question. Nobody asks for it, and nobody should be subjected to it. Period, end of story.
When businesses invest in a name brand, like Donna Karan, yet have no responsibility for what the individual says or does, they are at a huge risk. Licensing agreements, which typically include morals clauses, give stakeholders some protection, but how can companies that own namesake brands, like Donna Karan, shield themselves from controversies like this? Being diligent in investing in such brand names isn’t enough, for who could have possibly foreseen that Karan, an icon of women’s rights and a staunch defender and supporter of women, would get into this kind of trouble? Certainly not me, or G-III, I suspect. To date, the company has issued no statement regarding this controversy.
But at the end of the day, Karan herself has a huge responsibility not just to her customers but also to the stakeholders in her brand. She needs to think like and act like the CEO of the Donna Karan brand, even if she isn’t CEO of the Donna Karan Company any longer.
If only Donna Karan, CEO, had stepped out on that red carpet and kept her personal feelings in check, she and her brand wouldn’t be in this mess. If only Donna Karan, the person, had made a personal, emotional apology the next day, rather than send out a boilerplate apology in corporate speak, she and her brand would likely be on the road to recovery. As it stands now, she has gotten the personal and the corporate all mixed up, and it won’t be set right until she makes the switch.