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Building a brand and reputation is no easy task, but protecting these assets can be even more difficult.

Brands can become associated – strategically or accidentally – with people, places or events, and these associations can either help or hinder.

The advent of social media has changed the way we communicate, and created an online environment that can spread brand associations, both good and bad, in the blink of an eye.

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For clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, brand protection has been a burden and a blessing.

MTV reality TV star Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino, a cast member on Jersey Shore, was a fan of its clothing and frequently sported it in public.

Last week, the company issued a news release offering Mr. Sorrentino a "substantial payment" to refrain from wearing its apparel, saying the association could be damaging to its brand.

The news created a storm on Twitter and Facebook, generated international media coverage and received attention from both MTV and the show's cast.

Despite the buzz generated from the public relations stunt, the retailer experienced a flood of negative criticism, highlighting numerous contradictions regarding its provocative marketing tactics.

Case in point: the retailer orchestrated a parade of shirtless models in Paris to promote the opening of the city's flagship store.

Ironically, Abercrombie & Fitch's stock fell nearly 10 per cent soon after it released the statement.

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Regardless of whether this was a result of its controversial brand protection efforts, the retailer's PR move was quickly blamed for its poor financial performance.

It's important to understand your brand, and more importantly, your audience.

Whether this was a serious move to protect the brand or a lighthearted way to align Abercrombie & Fitch with popular TV programming, the retailer alienated its target demographic by challenging a reality TV star with the same fans.

Aligning brands with people, places or events can be risky, as companies bank on the fact that the association will remain positive.

With risk can come great reward, as associations can generate incredible brand exposure at minimal cost.

For example, after Avril Lavigne sported a vintage Home Hardware T-shirt during a performance on Saturday Night Live, the retailer enjoyed record demand for the exclusive product.

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Home Hardware earned enormous media coverage without a formal sponsorship agreement, and donated a portion of the proceeds from its shirt sales to charity.

As a small business owner, it's important to be open to potentially lucrative brand alignment opportunities, while remaining aware of the risks to your brand image.

Marketing and PR campaigns that seek to capitalize on these associations need to be strategically evaluated with your target market in mind, and build positive awareness that drives back to your product or service.

Although Abercrombie & Fitch generated significant PR coverage, it was mostly negative, and highlighted the brand's strategic oversight: taking aim at a hit TV show that its target demographic evidently likes.

Was the retailer's effort worth it in the end? You be the judge of this 'situation.'

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT

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