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Commentary

Louise Linton Needs a Lesson in Branding

Earlier this week, Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, posted a photo to Instagram of her and her husband de-boarding a government plane. Her caption: “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #coutryside #rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa”

A user, Jennifer Miller, responded: “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable,” to which Linton clapped back: “I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.” The backlash around Linton’s response has been intense, to say the least.

Linton has since apologized, although many have speculated about this initial post. Why would a successful—presumably wealthy—person write this, flaunting luxury brand names in such a blunt and crass fashion?

The answer is quite simple: Linton was likely seeking attention and favorable feedback. People post on social media to generate likes, shares, and comments; a cleverly crafted post can generate a wave of positive responses. Linton used brand hashtags to reach out to online communities and amplify the response. When you use the hashtag #hermes, people who follow it will see it. They presumably like Hermes, and will respond with encouraging feedback. That wasn’t the case for Linton.

In today’s social media-driven world, brands are equally as conscious of who is sharing their product and impacting their image. A brand manager would be smart to distance the brand from a polarizing public figure, such as Linton. And Linton would’ve been wise to not even post about those brands in the first place—and instead use her platform to prioritize other important topics.

Social media complicates things for managers, as nearly overnight, an online community can react to a situation that’s out of a brand’s direct control, such as Linton’s post. A company can influence the discussion, but a brand can’t stop someone from using a particular hashtag. We suspect the marketing executives at Hermes are not delighted with the Louise Linton story.

Brands need to set boundaries and define limits. What sort of comments are not appropriate? When do customers cross the line? The best marketing departments will have these questions, among others, clearly answered in advance to be ready for an inevitable incident like this one. Those boundaries will help the marketers act in a way that’s aligned with their own core brand values.

That also means there are times when brands need to take a stand. Last week, for example, the Tiki Torch Company was quick to distance itself from the neo-Nazi groups that used its products during the Charlottesville, Va. protests.

The growth of communities is making brand management more complex and raising delicate issues. It is interesting that the luxury brands Linton mentioned have been publicly silent on the issue. We are confident company executives were concerned and debated whether a response was warranted. They presumably decided there was little they could say that would help the situation. This is a notable decision and one that reflects how complex managing a brand has become.

Brands have always been symbolic; people purchase and wear luxury brands to make a statement. And today, those statements can go viral rather quickly. The best brand managers will be ready for it. The best public figures will think twice before posting.

Tim Calkins and Julie Hennessy, clinical professors of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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