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Brand Strategy Fashion Marketing

Three stripes and you’re out: the sorry story of Sunak’s Sambas


By Niklas Mortensen, Chief design officer

April 9, 2024 | 4 min read

It was the hottest sneaker in town... until it wasn’t. Designit’s Niklas Mortensen talks us through how the UK PM managed to tread on the hard-earned brand equity of the Adidas Samba simply by wearing them.

Sunak in Sambas

Sunak in Sambas

In one short Instagram video around tax policy, Rishi Sunak managed to kill off one of the coolest brands of the past few years - Adidas Sambas. The go-to shoe for fashion-conscious Millennial Dads, rappers and Gen Z girls went from “the defining sneaker of our age” to the “uncoolest” pair of kicks around. At least, that’s the prevalent narrative.

Those switched into the sneakerverse will be aware that Samba is already likely at the end of its hype cycle after a very respectable run. TikTok was already self-reflective of Sambas crossing the ‘cool’ threshold into a kind of ‘basic uniform.’ Sunak’s team was the 90th-minute bandwagon jumper who turned up wearing the embers of a trend that was already fatally sick.

What Sunak and his Sambas do show is the brittle nature of brand coolness and how quickly that perception can sour. It also highlights vividly the point that ultimately, brands have little control when it comes to the realms of cool.

The delicate dance of brand relevance

Brand value is generally determined by attributes such as innovation, originality and uniqueness. What makes a brand cool is something much more ethereal: the intricate web of associations and perceptions that consumers form with brands.

When a brand becomes linked with a celebrity or public figure, consumers inevitably project the qualities – both positive and negative – associated with that individual on to the brand itself. Sunak’s sartorial misstep underscores the delicate dance brands must perform to maintain their relevance.

In the case of Rishi Sunak and the Sambas, the disconnect between the prime minister’s political stance and the vibe traditionally associated with this footwear creates cognitive dissonance for consumers. It raises wider - sometimes uncomfortable, subconscious - questions around whether we want our politicians to be ‘cool’, whether we want them to be ‘like us,’ and whether there’s an element of disingenuity in appropriating a cool trend. Suddenly, the once-cool sneakers are perceived through a different lens – one colored by the actions and ideologies of a controversial figure.

This phenomenon is not unique to Adidas; we’ve seen it play out time and time again with other brands. Take, for instance, the rise and fall of Ed Hardy. Once a favorite among celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, the brand’s bold and flashy designs became emblematic of early 2000s excess. However, as Ed Hardy became increasingly associated with the “bling” culture of the era, its cool factor plummeted, leaving it languishing in the realm of tackiness and irrelevance.

The precarious balancing act of cool

The balance brands must strike between maintaining their authenticity and courting celebrity endorsements is a difficult one. When a brand becomes too closely associated with a particular individual or demographic – even involuntarily - it risks alienating its core audience and losing the very essence that made it relevant in the first place. It’s a cautionary tale for brands tempted by the allure of celebrity endorsement: tread carefully, for the wrong association can spell disaster for your image.

In the age of social media scrutiny and instant viral outrage, the stakes have never been higher for brands seeking to preserve their coolness quotient. With every endorsement deal and celebrity sighting, brands must carefully consider the potential ramifications for their image and reputation – and react quickly.

After all, in the world of fashion and branding, coolness is a currency that can be easily squandered – and once lost, it’s a difficult road back to redemption.

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