Cotton On's contentious range creates brand damage

Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney once saidCottonOn
“A brand is a living entity—and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” Few truer words have ever been spoken about brand. What I would add though, is that not all brand gestures are born equal. Some gestures have the potential to cause far more damage to your brand than others – and these are the ones you should spend your time-on getting right.

Brand strategy kamikaze
Australian retailer; Cotton On has worked hard to build a good business with a growing community of loyal customers who believe in it’s brand. Over the past years Cotton On has made many brand decisions, big and small, and made them well… until now. Cotton On recently launched a new range of babies clothes with contentious prints on them with messages like ‘I’m living proof my mum is easy’, ‘I’m a tits man’ and worst of all ‘they shake me’. I’ll leave the debate on the inappropriateness of these messages to others more eloquent than I, however, I’m drawn to shake my head is disbelief at the apparent absolute disregard for the impact of this gesture on the Cotton On brand.

All brand gestures are not born equal
When we talk of small and large brand gestures, what a retailer chooses to sell to its customers is just about as-big-a gesture as they get. In the process of building relationships with your customers, stocking a range of products that clashes with their value system is what we would consider a ‘brand derailer’. At last glance, just 36 hours after the on-line storm hit and the angry Twitter campaign caught fire, there have been no-less than 28 news paper articles, several television stories and pages of on-line comment – #cottononaresick is currently ranked amongst the hottest tweet topics on Twitter. There has been an apology from Cotton On and the product has reportedly been withdrawn, but the damage to the brand has been done. With one poor decision, Cotton On have dismantled years of careful and pain-staking brand and reputation building. The task of re-connecting with its community has become Cotton On’s biggest challenge, it must now work diligently and with humility at re-establishing the brand’s values to once again be in alignment with those of its customers.



  1. I couldn’t agree more – the damage is done! I often purchase Cotton On garments and will now think twice before purchasing again, however in saying that, how can you go past buying a t-shirt for $2?

  2. @Dominic, this does show that you can’t build a brand on a price offer only. You do need these other dimensions. Whilst price will always drive favour, it can only be in the short term until someone cheaper comes along.

  3. @ Reg, yep, poor choice of words alright. When it comes to brand, the old adage of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ doesn’t hold true. The strength of relationship between brand and customer is more about trust and shared values as it is about profile. Do you think the Cotton-On brand has strong enough relationships to overcome letting itself down so publicly?

  4. Cotton On was always a lower end brand – so this kind of thing doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I’d go as far to say that that kind of base humour (they shake me?!) may well appeal to it’s ‘low end’ target market. Visiting one of Cotton On Kids suburban stores tells the whole story. People who find the campaign distasteful are shopping elsewhere anyway.

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