The disastrous fallout for brands associated with Ye — the artist formerly known as Kanye West — following his antisemitic rampage online has brought fresh attention to the risks of celebrity deals.
After the rapper posted antisemitic comments on Twitter earlier this month, including telling his followers to “go defcon 3 [sic]” on the Jews, companies from Gap to Balenciaga have dropped Ye from brand endorsements and partnerships. Instagram and Twitter locked his social media accounts. Talent agency CAA said it is no longer representing him.
The remarks have provided fuel for anti-semitic groups in the U.S.. On Monday, a group hung a banner over a major freeway in Los Angeles that said “Kayne is right about the Jews.”
While many brands were quick to distance themselves from Ye after this latest controversy, German footwear brand Adidas was steadfast. Adidas, which has a decade-long partnership with the rapper, has stood by him after various scandals including in 2018 when he suggested slavery was a choice. After receiving pressure from activist groups, Adidas finally pulled the plug on its partnership with Ye on Tuesday (Oct. 25).
Ending his partnership with Adidas will cost Ye his billionaire status, but the rapper isn’t the only one with something to lose. For Adidas, severing ties with Ye will result in a nearly $250 million immediate loss to the company.
The saga, which came shortly after Ye’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian was fined by the FTC for improperly disclosing a crypto endorsement, raises the question for brands:
How do you vet brand ambassadors and has that changed given the growing number of scandals from celebrity endorsements?
We asked experts for their thoughts.
Laurie Kessler, CEO, The Celebrity Source
Celebrity ambassadors will always be an effective marketing strategy if it’s done authentically to match the brand’s desired image. Some brands require a squeaky clean, non-controversial image while other brands may prefer an edgy “bad boy” projected perception. Either way, today’s social climate requires more stringent vetting of potential celebrity partners — from scrubbing through a celebrity’s social media history and media quotes, to hunting for clues in gossip columns and confiding in entertainment insiders for insight.
Adidas knew what they had with Kanye and they embraced that relationship, despite all the off-the-wall and sketchy behavior he has exhibited over the years. But what it appears they didn’t do is identify to what degree they were willing to allow him to go. Other brands dropped him like a hot potato after the “White Lives Matter” t-shirts while Adidas stayed on. It was only because of strong consumer and investor pressure did they finally cut the cord over Kanye’s recent antisemitic statements.
Like with most things in life, there are risks and rewards. Partnering with some celebrities is riskier than partnering with others, therefore a brand needs to clearly define how much of a risk they are willing to take. With great risks there can be great rewards, but there’s also the possibility of the opposite happening with great failure.
One of the things we sometimes advise brands to do with celebrity ambassadors is to “date” before they get “married” — starting with less-involved and lower-risk projects like social media campaigns or limited-edition collaborations to make sure there is a fit for the long haul, and less at stake should the celebrity fall out of favor.
Today more than ever before, brands need to better protect themselves in their talent agreements and include clauses which will allow them to cleanly get out of their partnership if needed. If a brand wants to go cutting-edge that’s fine, but they must identify and be clear about their limits and make sure contracts lay those limits out very clearly.
Ashley Cooksley, CEO for North America, The Social Element
The reality is that while you can vet all you want, unless you’re using a virtual influencer, you can’t control your brand ambassador. The same reasons you chose them — for their personality and their presence — also mean that they will more than likely speak off the cuff at some point, or weigh in on a controversial subject.
Always assume that your brand ambassador will impact your brand (after all, that’s what you want — you just want positive impact), and consider potential scenarios and have a crisis plan in place for those “just in case” moments. Deploy social listening and monitor their activity so things don’t catch you by surprise. And above all else, always look at the person’s history — not just their role in culture — and be thoughtful about the choices you make. It’s up to you to decide whether the risk of them ‘being themselves’ is something you’re comfortable taking on, and whether they’re someone you’re ultimately comfortable connecting your brand to.
It may seem obvious, but ask yourself whether their values and their audience are in line with your brand values, and if it’s a stretch, take that to heart. If they do create a mismatch, act quickly and decisively — hesitation can make it appear as though you sanction their behavior or views, when that might not be the case at all.
Tom Yawney, VP of business and communications, The Influence Agency
There are a variety of ways that we vet talent before submitting them as options for client campaigns. The first tactic would be a straight manual check through their social content to review what they've posted in the last 12 months. Is there anything controversial? Have they said or done anything in the past that the brand may not want to associate with? It's always a good idea to do a manual check. We would also leverage both social listening and search tools to see if there is any public commentary or discourse around the individual we are vetting.
As we move further along in the process, we would also ask for first party access to the account of the talent to review the breakdown of their audience, and to ensure it aligns with the target demographic of the brand.
Aside from performing a manual check and leaning on software to provide a broader perspective, there is also a level of common sense and discretion. Meaning, if you are partnering with someone like Kanye West, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. He is well known for his outspoken views and various controversies, so you have to be prepared for that potential when working with him. This also means that if a brand is very safe and more modest in their tone, we would want to hire content creators who align with that approach, and who have no history of controversy.
Mark DiMassimo, founder and creative chief, DiGo
Vetting influencers has changed. The best partnerships today are designed for both resilience and innovation.You have to think about both, because risk management alone will not build a brand. You need to manage the synergy of duel forces that are often at odds - the right level of edge and drama, on the one hand, and brand safety on the other. In short, it’s not about eliminating risk, but rather allying your brand with the right risks.
For example, Nike did it right when it doubled down on Colin Kaepernick. It was the right risk, an on-brand risk. Adidas got it morbidly wrong when it hesitated to sever ties with Ye. It was exactly the wrong risk for the brand.
We insist on having both brand leaders and compliance/risk leaders in the process of vetting influencers, and we insist on a dynamic conversation. We’re not looking for no risk. We’re looking for the right risk.
Jordan Fox, head of Laundry Service and Cycle
Fortunately at Cycle, rigorous brand-safety vetting of creator partners has been a core part of our process for many years, so we haven't had to make any adjustments amidst the recent spate of high-profile mishaps in the space. We use a set of third-party tools (as well as manual timeline review) to evaluate both brand safety, as well as to identify prior brand partnerships with competitors in our clients' verticals.
We’ve crafted a proprietary tech stack which allows us to evaluate creator channels by keyword, competitor and sentiment analysis. We also assess content and tone manually in potentially sensitive situations.
The goal is always: no surprises for our brand partners.
C. Riana Manuel-Peña, director of brand and unified marketing at Zebra Partners
Everyone has the potential to falter – public figures even more so as their professional and private lives are exponentially more visible. The greatest impact lies in how one reacts to and recovers from mistakes they’ve made. The vetting process must examine this – look for examples of accountability when called out on bad behavior, transparency when making a potentially controversial decision, and actions taken towards correcting transgressions. A great example is the word “sp*z” being removed from both Beyoncé and Lizzo’s recent projects after disability advocacy experts explained the impact of the ableist slur.
Charlie Hart, EVP integrated media lead, North America, Current Global
The events of 2020 impacted the business of influence, with the emergence of cancel culture and a renewed expectation of activism among influencers and celebrities.
This led to an overhaul of our influencer vetting processes, including engaging issues management experts to vet influencers we propose to our clients. It’s surprising how many have used social as a platform to voice controversial points of view at one time or another.
When working with clients, before diving into the planning process, we determine the brand’s appetite for risk and align on its mission, purpose and values. This gives us a framework to evaluate whether influencers actions or statements are acceptable to the brand and allows us to act quickly to terminate influencers if they breach those standards. We evaluate things like an influencer’s stance on political issues, political affiliations, offensive language, and likelihood of engaging in any kind of hate speech.
Jess Philips, founder and CEO, The Social Standard
Vetting brand ambassadors is key to overall success. As we've seen recently, this is a step that can often be overlooked. There are few basic things every brand should do:
1. Manual Search: make sure you click through the last three months’ worth of content on their social feeds and do a Google search. This will clear you of any recent and obvious issues.
2. Background Checks: This is especially important for things like DUIs if you are an automotive brand or ensuring an influencer's past doesn't catch up with you.
3. Don't forget to look through things like Instagram Highlights. We typically find niche conversations that influencers audiences are very engaged with here. If your brand wants to stay clear of certain social or political conversations, this is an important place to check.