Urban Outfitters, the aspiring-to-be edgy apparel retailer, is coming under scrutiny for selling a $129 sweatshirt inspired by the 1970 Kent State Vietnam protest and subsequent campus shooting. In a shocking move, the “Kent State” shirt is covered in what resembles blood splatter.
Apparently there was only one shirt for sale via urbanoutfitters.com, but once the shirt popped up on Ebay (with the asking price of $550), the media took hold https://www.yahoo.com/style/urban-outfitters-kent-state-sweatshirt-97567818463.html and now the company is in the position of defending itself and its decision to create and sell the garment.
Having worked for and with several apparel companies in my career, I understand the need for a youth-driven brand to constantly be part of the conversation and relevant to younger consumers. That said, there is a line that can be crossed that that can smack of desperation and challenge the boundaries of taste.
In this case, the powers at Urban Outfitters who approved this decision may have forgotten that the Kent State tragedy was just that, a tragedy. Even though it happened more than 44 years ago, it is not some mythical event. Also known as the “May 4 Massacre,” the fact is that people died and it will be forever known as a blemish in American history.
Kent State University has responded to the situation through a statement and Urban Outfitters responded through Twitter. In the company’s Twitter response, they imply that the offending shirt design was a “discoloration” and that the holes are “from natural wear and fray.” Where the truth lies is unclear. What-ever-the-case, brands can push boundaries, but they must remember that they are first and foremost brands. In this world of two-way dialogue, if they offend they will be called out by the people and it may hit them negatively on store shelves. For all of us in brand marketing we need to remember:
- Have brand guiding principles and stick to them at all times; erratic decisions and one-off stunts to drive conversations may hurt you in the long run.
- If you think something is a bad idea, it probably is. Don’t do it.
- Even if a final product or program in not intended the way it is publicly perceived (taking Urban Outfitters statement as truth), look at the worst case scenario before anything goes out the door and connect the dots before someone else does it for you. In my opinion, anyone with any sense of history would have thrown that sweatshirt in the trash.