What Are the Limits of Unbranding?

Celebrity endorsements have been popular for a long time, but fashion experts are reportedly now practicing a new marketing strategy loosely known as “unbranding”: “Allegedly, the anxious folks at these various luxury houses are all aggressively gifting our gal Snookums with free bags. No surprise, right? But here’s the shocker: They are not sending her their?own bags. They are sending her each other’s bags!?Competitors‘ bags!” Apparently an endorsement from “Snookums,” a.k.a. Snooki of Jersey Shore fame, is poison for a luxury handbag designer. Surely this strategy has been, or will be, practiced by other agents, large and small. (And yes, signing one’s enemy up for a porn-magazine subscription really does get his attention.) Readers, any thoughts? What are the limits to an unbranding strategy? (HT: Marginal Revolution) [%comments]

Jeff #3

This amuses me to no end. I don't think this will add much to the discussion, but an overpriced handbag creater will send the creation of a fellow overpriced handbag creator to an overpriced reality 'start' in an attempt to lower their sales is like pure comedy.

Chris MacDonald

By way of framing, it's probably right to think of this as a question about the ethics of competition. What are the limits on what you can do within a competitive game? One analogy might be with attempts, when picking teams for a pickup game of basketball or football, to "generously" give a bad player to the other team: "No, no, it's OK...*you* can have Mike!"

Chris MacDonald
The Business Ethics Blog


It may well be the definition of a degenerate culture that doing unethical/unseemly things advances one's chances of thriving rather than hindering it.


It's a gift, nothing more. Snooki can do with it as she pleases and the very fact that choice is involved in the matter makes this ethically neutral to me. Good strategy. Sorry she likes your handbag.


Didn't the makers of "Christal" champagne attempt to "unbrand" themselves from certain rappers? Or at least an executive made some less than tactful comments about the people the rapped about Christal. I don't think the attempt was very successful, but maybe there was more a race and/or class dynamic at work.

I would think timing would be everything in such an endeavor, the brand/designer would have to be anticipate the bad press that would result from association with Snooki, and shift the association to a competitor before Snooki became associated with their own brand. Once the first impression is made, that is one that sticks. Perhaps Jay-Z favors Dom Perignon now, but I think the first champagne I would think of when Jay-Z is mentioned would be Christal. To casual observers that are likely to buy designer handbags, but not follow Jersey Shore closely enough to be up to date, the first impression is going to have a profound influence.



To the extent that this is done, my guess is that the companies doing it are using some degree of deception. I.e., they're impersonating representatives of another company. (I'm doubting that these gifts just show up in the mail with no cover letter.) Sending gifts is fine, but fraud is another story.


The limits? Bentley sending a Rolls Royce to Mel Gibson? British Airways giving free Virgin Air passes to Naomi Campbell? Robotussin setting up JaMarcus Russell with a year's supply of Niquil? Marketing types could get truly transgressive with this by linking competitors' products with infamous felons.


Oracle's chairman Larry Ellison is fond of this. Oracle is known for hiring what look like indigents to stand outside Microsoft conferences wearing Microsoft branded T-shirts or displaying other logo-wear.

Reasonably amusing.


JB - Champagne Roederer (makers of Cristal) hasn't completely unbranded themselves from hip-hop artists, but their managing director has made some... questionable statements about it. When asked in an interview with The Economist in 2006 if he thought the association with rap artists would harm the brand, he replied, "that's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."


I agree with Dan, nothing wrong here. If people are dumb enough to make choices based on irrelevant celebs' apparent preferences, it is fine for marketers to exploit that.


I found Doonan's original article hysterical and brilliant (being completely unaware of the state of Snooki's Swag) As far as "unbranding" goes the fashion/luxury business can go the route of the Cristal debacle-foot firmly in mouth- or hone their sense of humor. And perhaps figure out a way to run with it, (or not as the case may be) but at least have a little fun with it!


Seems like a typical marketing stunt with Snooki gaming everyone. If I was her I'd simply sell the bags on eBay and call it a day... or maybe I'd sign them first and get even more out of them.


Didn't Edison encourage the use of an AC electrocution chair to promote the use of his DC as the safe electricity?


What was the quote?-

"The only bad publicity is no publicity at all?"

Celebrity marketing brand shills like Paris Hilton know this to the nth degree.


Wow, could they actually end up giving competitor's products to criminals? I don't know if you have this in the US but here in Ireland very often journalists will try to photograph criminal suspects leaving court, and the suspects sometimes try to hide their faces beneath hoods, scarves or sweaters pulled over their heads.

...Just make sure it's your rival's hood, scarf or sweater they're wearing!


Tyler- Ah right, that's the quote. More of a tactless comment than an conscious attempt at "un-branding."