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Even as Trump shoots back, Under Armour CEO’s departure from panel may aid brand, analysts say

President Donald J. Trump labeled Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and several other CEOs as “grandstanders” for resigning from a White House advisory committee, but analysts say the exits may help their brands.

“If you’re a corporation that either employs or has a customer base that has more liberal or centrist values, being on a Trump committee is a liability,” said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

On Tuesday, Trump reacted on Twitter to the departures Monday of Plank, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier from his manufacturing jobs advisory council.

Amid widespread criticism that Trump did not quickly denounce the racist groups that marched in a weekend rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., Frazier resigned first, criticizing the president’s tepid response. Plank resigned later, saying Under Armour focuses on sport, not politics.

“For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!”

Two more executives — Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO — said Tuesday that they were leaving the panel.

Paul stepped down before Trump said again Tuesday that “there is blame on both sides" for the violence in the college town that left a counter-protestor dead and several dozen injured. Trumka resigned right after Trump’s press briefing.

“We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism,” Trumka said in a statement.

Almost immediately after Under Armour released word of Plank’s departure from the council Monday night, social media mentions of the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company skyrocketed, according to Brandwatch, a social media monitoring company.

Mentions of Under Armour soared to 22,000 an hour, up from 570 before the announcement, said Kellan Terry, Brandwatch’s PR data manager.

“When we look at the sentiment, it was overwhelmingly positive,” Terry said. “I’m seeing a rate of 89 percent positive mentions. It shows this is kind of what people wanted to see.”

Brandwatch pulls data from the public portions of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and millions of other sites. It assesses language and calculates whether mentions appear positive or negative in tone.

Earlier this year, Brandwatch found the social media tenor on Under Armour was sharply negative after Plank told CNBC that having "such a pro-business president is something that's a real asset to this country." A number of celebrity Under Armour endorsers publicly disagreed with Plank, and Under Armour bought a full-page ad in The Baltimore Sun saying it stood for a “diverse and inclusive America.”

“They were one of many brands that got swept into a social media backlash,” Terry said.

Under Armour said Monday that it doesn’t engage in “politics.”

But analysts said it can be difficult for the CEO of a global company to avoid becoming entangled in politics — and the resulting risk is higher than ever because Trump is so polarizing.

“Everything has politics to it,” said Schweitzer, the Wharton professor. “Most organizations try to stay clear of it so people from both sides of the aisle will find their products likable and not offensive.”

The White House said it created the advisory council in January to “get Americans back to work again.”

Plank joined a select group that included top executives from Arconic, Corning, Dell Technologies, Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Co., International Paper, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, U.S. Steel and Whirlpool. At the first meeting in January, Plank sat between Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX and senior White House adviser Stephen Bannon, a few chairs away from Trump.

A few executives have since departed. Musk left in June, citing Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement.

In stepping down, Plank said he would “continue to focus my efforts on inspiring every person that they can do anything through the power of sport which promotes unity, diversity and inclusion."

“Kevin Plank leaving the president’s Manufacturing Council was the absolute right thing to do on several levels,” said Auburn Bell, an adjunct professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland.

“Continuing to be a part of a presidential administration ingrained in so much controversy and conflict will only work toward the detriment of his relationships with Under Armour shareholders, employees and investors and, ultimately, the success of Under Armour,” Bell said.

After Plank received pushback over his positive Trump comments earlier this year, leaving the council “provides him with the opportunity to put the former issue behind him with a proactive move following the president’s controversial statements after the Charlottesville tragedy,” Bell said.

Because of the range of its products, Under Armour must appeal to a wide constituency in urban and rural areas. Its products include shoes, apparel and accessories for male and female athletes and non-athletes.

Last summer, the company cut ties with a sponsored hunter whose husband had videoed himself spearing a baited bear in Canada. While animal advocates deplored the hunt, many in the hunting community took issue with Under Armour's decision to no longer sponsor the hunter.

“Under Armour needs to have broad appeal,” Schweitzer said.

With Trump’s popularity dipping to record low levels, he said there may be more risk in remaining on the committee than leaving.

“Especially as that committee shrinks in size, people will now be asking who is left as if they’ve made a deliberate choice to stay,” Schweitzer said.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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