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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Urban Outfitters’ “Vintage” Kent State Sweatshirt

As a follower of fashion news, you may be aware of Urban Outfitters' bloodied Kent State University sweatshirt controversy.  The following is a guest article on the subject from Kate Connors and Kipp Lanham from Media & Communications Strategies, Inc.

Urban Outfitters is no stranger to brand controversy. In fact, some of their promotional language suggests they aim to be edgy and controversial. Yet how much is too much? In these times of heightened sensitivity to gun violence in any school or mall setting, Urban Outfitters might want to reconsider this type of business approach with its Kent State vintage sweatshirt.

Recently, the brand marketed this vintage-era shirt, due to the discoloration and splatters of red on the shirt, which seemed very reminiscent of blood. Immediately after its release, critics took to social media; outraged the shirt was reminiscent of the 1970 Kent State Massacre on the university’s campus that left four dead, nine injured and thousands of people across the United States outraged.

Urban Outfitters Kent State Sweatshirt

Where do you draw the line? Our team looked at some of the things Urban Outfitters’ company leaders did correctly and some things that could have used a vast improvement.

After the outpouring of criticism from its customer base, Urban Outfitters did remove the item immediately for sale and issued an apology featured in TIME:

“Urban Outfitters would like to extend our sincerest apologies to Kent State University and the Kent State community. We are deeply saddened by the recent uproar our Vintage Kent State sweatshirt has caused. Though it was never our intention to offend anyone, we understand how the item could have been perceived negatively… To promote such an event is disgraceful, insensitive and in poor taste…The discoloration that has been mistaken for blood is from natural fading and sun exposure. With all of that said, this truth does not excuse us from our failure to identify potential controversial products head on.”

But is this apology really genuine? It is hard for many consumers to believe Urban Outfitter company officials are truly feeling sorry when they are notorious for pushing boundaries. Their “Eat Less” t-shirt release caused celebrities like Sophia Bush to attack them for encouraging men and women to embrace “thinspiration” and other pro-eating disorder actions. Urban Outfitters targets 18-30 year olds, which for many individuals is a transitional life phase during which one feels immense pressure. The eating disorder risk heightens during this period, so creating a shirt encouraging these young adults to eat less really doesn’t help quell the self-image problems people face during this life period.

This isn’t the first time a brand has upset customers with a product, and Urban Outfitters certainly could have spent a little more time researching what other companies have done in this instance, if not at least know its US history.

Here are just a few ideas of how Urban Outfitters could have handled this situation more appropriately:

1)      Publically Reach out to the Kent State University (KSU) Administration – Every year since the tragic 1970 shootings, KSU alumni and students hold memorials to honor the lives lost on that day. Urban Outfitters could have expressed its apologies to those directly involved.

2)      Make a public donation to a Kent State charity – Public donations are important for increasing brand awareness and giving a face to the causes an organization supports. For example, ‘Kent May 4 Center’ is a non-profit educational charity that has made it their mission to educate the public about what happened on May 4, 1970 and to memorialize the victims of this tragedy. One of its initiatives has been to create memorial scholarships for the Kent State students. Sponsoring a scholarship would be a great way for Urban Outfitters to show its support for the victims and their families.

3)      Support anti-gun violence campaigns in schools: With an increase in school shootings, more companies are taking a stand against gun violence in schools. Urban Outfitters should consider taking a public stance against gun violence and doing a shirt that reflects such. Turning a negative product into a positive one is a great way to rebrand your company after a crisis.

I know some individuals are going to argue, “any press is good press.” In our business at Media & Communications Strategies, that isn’t the case. The best thing you can do in this situation is offer an apology but then take action to make amends for what you did as a corporation. This will help to restore faith in your brand, and stress the apology was sincere and genuine. Companies such as Urban Outfitters need to have sensitivity to the culture and times in which they live and operate. Who wears the clothes? Where will they be seen wearing the clothes? Will it create any concerns among the community? If these questions are asked, a crisis such as this could have been averted. It can be easy to look back and point fingers, but companies can do better to not act tone deaf to current events and history happening around them for the sake of an image that can quickly turn offensive without doing simple homework and planning.

By Kate Connors and Kipp Lanham, Senior Account Team Members at Media & Communications Strategies.

About Media & Communications Strategies, Inc:

Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. handles all kinds of critical public relations for US and international clients out of our Washington, D.C. office. We are a founding member of the Public Relations Boutiques International network for constant, far-reaching support. High profile crisis communications is one niche talent, reputation management in all kinds of media is our core expertise and client satisfaction is our specialty.

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