The Youth Lab


Having recently explored the theme of modern brand leadership through the lens of youth, we just could not ignore the Ye controversy this week. The Ye (Kanye West) controversy has been inescapable, surfacing important conversations about leadership, responsibility and accountability culture while highlighting the pitfalls of personality-based brand collaborations. This 52INSIGHTS explores the turn of events and how they speak to youth’s expectations from brands.


Well, he did dare them to do it.” Fortune

In a recent interview Ye said that he could say anti-Semitic things and Adidas can’t drop me.” In fact, he said it twice for effect. His comments came after a series of controversial moves, including donning a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt during the Paris Fashion Week and making fatphobic comments about the beloved Lizzo (we’re still not over the Taylor Swift outburst either). He has progressed to making anti-Jewish remarks on social media, news and podcasts (which got him quickly banned from Twitter). Ye’s huge platform makes comments like this a dangerous tinderpoint for hate - as we saw with a notorious white supremacy group boldly posting a ‘Kanye is right’ banner in LA this week. As Jewish Iraqi writer Hen Mazzig shared, “[Ye’s behaviour] taps into age old anti-semitic tropes…The Jewish community know what this means for us, and it all ends in violence.”

Following the outbursts, brands quickly began to distance themselves from Ye, pulling out of longstanding collaborations, business relationships and partnerships. Adidas was the most notable, unfortunately for its slowness in response despite open letters to top executives shared extensively across the internet. Finally the decision was made to pull out of a deal worth $1.5 billion. The Yeezy brand has been a key player in the brand’s growth and success and it is estimated that the decision will hit Adidas’ net income by nearly $250 million in 2022. Various others have cut ties with Ye including Balenciaga, Gap, TJ Maxx, Foot Locker and most recently Peloton. It’s noteworthy too that it’s not just brands creating distance from Ye, but also his former talent agency, CAA - and Madame Tussaud’s even announced that they’re removing his wax figure from the London museum! Of course the internet has also been poking fun creating fake announcements from brands who aren’t involved with Ye in any way.


Its approaching 20 years since West’s famous outburst whilst raising relief funds for people affected by Hurricane Katrina. West took the opportunity to speak up against media portrayal of people of colour, especially in crisis. The points made at the time are particularly resonant now with the knowledge the world gained from the Black Lives Matter movement: “I hate the way they portray us in the media… If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, it says they’re searching for food. Those are my people down there … they’ve given [the U.S. military] permission to go down and shoot us.” Ultimately, West backed down on his challenge to Bush in 2010, and retracted the statement. But not before profiting off the moment massively, releasing a single titled “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”. This statement followed music released in 2004 by West, with specific subject matters of racism and discrimination within the U.S.

That version of West couldn’t be more of a stranger to the current ‘right-wing’ iteration of the creator. Now standing aligned with individuals like Donald Trump, he’s racked up endless problematic statements in recent years - in 2018 the Rapper claimed in a TMZ interview, that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice”. This jump in political opinions, of course, happened over decades. But it seems to have sped up in recent weeks and does raise the query as to whether Kanye has been using shock tactics for years in order to drive album shares.


Ignoring him is not holding him accountable.” Former Kanye Fan on KTT2

Of course, Ye’s mental health and personal vulnerability has been a topic of concern in recent years. Many supporters were sympathetic to his past transgressions, but the past month appears to have crossed a line for many fans. While Ye has always been a strong commentator on philosophical and political themes, for many, he has now stepped beyond commenting from the perspective of the artist, and moved into provocative hot topics and hate speech (remember he also announced a bid to run for president in the past).

I grew up listening to Kanye's music, I'd still own every album right up until TLOP. Up until then part of his charm was his underdog energy, but it became hard to root for him when he started taking down other people who helped him on the way up. Specifically coming after women at the time and using them as sexual objects to make a point in his Famous video made me feel sick, when he'd based so much of his career off the love he had for the women who raised him. I stopped listening to him and every stunt he's pulled since has reaffirmed that decision.” Niamh Martin, Social & Digital Innovation Team, THINKHOUSE (ex Kanye fan)

While some continue to call the man a genius, Complex highlights how today’s context feels different for fans who previously have defended him: “​​…Kanye has transitioned from sharing ideas and opinions to spreading hate speech. And instead of apologizing for his harmful comments after initially receiving backlash, he has doubled down on them many times over in various interviews.”


Accountability Culture - Moving At The Speed Of Controversy

The biggest question about Ye’s brand partnerships coming to an end is whether Adidas moved too slowly or not. This is a significant decision given the realities of brand responsibility and purpose. Values alignment is only one part of the story - the increasingly intense social & political landscape demands quick and ethically-driven decision making. Young people are expectating brands and businesses to react to cultural context and controversy at pace.

However, it’s also important that both the financial and human implications of these decisions are communicated - many people were able to understand the time that it took Adidas to make their (late) announcement, once they were able to consider the real impacts of that choice on employees, for example.