Expulsion of Hong Kong protest shoe design leads to #BoycottVans brand headache

Shoe brand Vans is dealing with a fair share of online blowback after expelling a design competition entry that referenced Hong Kong’s ongoing protests.

The shoe design was submitted by Canada-based artist Naomiso to the Vans Global Custom Culture competition. Entries are publically voted on, with the highest-ranked entry up to win a prize of US$25,000 and the honour of Vans producing the design. At over 30,000 votes, Naomiso’s submission - which featured masked protesters, a yellow umbrella, and Hong Kong’s bauhinia flower symbol -  was set to win the contest, having gained the most votes at the time.

However, likely judging the design to be a potential hornet’s nest of problems for its operations in mainland China, Vans removed Naomiso’s design from the competition. And on 5 October posted a statement on Facebook, in both English and Chinese, stating that the design went against the competition’s guidelines and the brand’s apolitical position.

The statement read:

Vans is committed to enabling creative expression and the Custom Culture Competition brings our purpose to life by engaging and supporting individual artists worldwide. In providing this platform, Vans hopes that both artists and participants around the world will use it to celebrate creativity and spread positivity.

As a brand that is open to everyone, we have never taken a political position and therefore review designs to ensure they are in line with our company’s long-held values of respect and tolerance, as well as with our clearly communicated guidelines for this competition.

Based on the global competitions guidelines, [sic] Vans can confirm that a small number of artistic submissions have been removed. This decision was taken to uphold the purpose of Custom Culture.

We greatly appreciate the effort that every single artist has made to contribute to this forum, and we look forward to many more contributions from our fans and consumers around the globe.”

Already, and somewhat predictably, this attempt at damage control has slightly backfired. Netizens sympathetic to the protester cause have railed against Vans, accusing them of unfair practice and of (ironically) being political by alleged kowtowing to brand censorship by the Chinese government. The hashtag #boycottvans has already begun to spread.

This is not the only case of brands facing criticism regarding the treatment of Hong Kong’s protests within even the last few days. Following a pro-protester tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, the NBA has also found itself under intense pressure following its response.