First, the State of South Carolina underwent a tremendous rebranding recently when South Carolina’s government eventually (and, in my view, somewhat surprisingly) agreed to remove the Confederate battle flag from state grounds. Of course, this does not mean that the flag is “banned,” it simply means that it will no longer serve as a representative symbol of the government (and by extension, the people) of South Carolina. Individuals, in exercising their freedom of speech, are still entitled to purchase and fly the flag, to the extent they can find it. So, if you want to continue protesting that it’s “heritage, not hate,” they can go right ahead. But foor all those that want to continue arguing the point, the simple fact of the matter is that the negative connotations associated with this symbol have, for a long time, outweighed any highly debatable positives associated with it. That’s simply undisputable. Regardless of whether you think the flag has positive symbolism (which is debatable), you can’t deny that it has become a symbol of racism and hatred. When the negatives outweigh the positives, it should be a pretty easy decision for any brand-owner–in this case, the State of South Carolina–to cut ties with the symbol and move in a better direction. When you’re dealing with symbols, perception is reality.
Second, Subway was forced to undergo the cost benefit analysis in connection with its “Jared” branding campaign when pitchman Jared Fogle’s home was raided by federal law enforcement just two months after one of his foundation’s employees was arrested on child porn charges. At this point, any ties between the Fogle raid and child porn is speculative, but again, perception is reality, so Jared’s got to go. (At least for now). After all, the last thing Subway wants its customers thinking about when trying to pick a sandwich is child porn.
Because perception is reality and because symbols matter, those in charge of any branding campaign–whether it’s corporate, governmental, or even personal–need to be incredibly vigilant in both protecting their symbols, and in monitoring how their symbols are being perceived. We received stark reminders of this during the past week. Had South Carolina not taken down the flag, it risked being viewed as a state of backward hillbillies on the wrong side of history. Had Subway not acted quickly when dealing with Jared, it likely would have risked an even further drop in sales and positive brand association than I’m sure its already experiencing.