When Under Armour’s CEO Kevin Plank described Donald Trump’s business-friendly attitude as “a real asset” to the country, the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry told The San Jose Mercury News, “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et.’” The sneaker brand promptly terminated its relationship with the popular MVP, explaining that “we don’t care who you are, you don’t disrespect the office of the President of the United States.”
Except that’s not what happened.
Plank took out a full page ad in the Baltimore Sun (Under Armour is based in Baltimore) to explain that “in a business television interview last week, I answered a question with a choice of words that did not accurately reflect my intent.” He then reached out to Curry as well as actor/wrestler Dwayne Johnson and ballerina Misty Copeland, who had also criticized him, to make sure they understood. And Steph Curry is still with Under Armour and presumably free to speak his mind.
In the past the conventional wisdom, and certainly the preference of marketers who pay for their endorsements, was that celebrity athletes should stay out of politics. (Celebrity actors are, of course, a different story.) Why risk offending millions of people who might boycott your brand as a result in the same way that Trump supporters are now boycotting Nordstrom’s and T.J. Maxx? But the flip side is that, when young people put on a pair of Steph Curry sneakers, they’re not just wearing shoes. They’re paying extra for identification with a brand that stands for ability, brilliance, success through striving and just plain coolness.
If that brand lets the celebrity add a political perspective, it may be brave and ballsy but it may also be coolly calculating. Think about the rationalizations that might be made by Midwestern white kids who continue to wear Curries. Maybe they’ll say, “hey, I appreciate a guy who’s complex and able to live with contradictions… like me.” Or maybe they’ll take Curry’s example as a license to form their own opinions and think for themselves. That’s scary, and exciting.
Note: this post heavily draws from a long and thoughtful piece which appeared in the New York Times on February 26, “Celebrity Endorsers Turn Political, and Keep Their Deals”. Please read that piece, by Zach Shonbrun, for more perspective.