London – Hummel's decision to tone down the details of Denmark's World Cup kit in protest against Qatar's human rights record was driven by the company's desire to be seen as a purpose-driven brand, industry experts told Reuters on Thursday.
The Danish sportswear company released a red monochrome kit on Wednesday that camouflages its logo while also launching Denmark's all-black third kit, which it said signified the "colour of mourning".
The launch was met with mixed reviews, with some hailing the company for its stance and others dismissing it as a marketing stunt to boost sales ahead of a major tournament.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School, said Hummel had positioned itself as a brand that embodies a set of values.
"The values that Hummel seeks to communicate are north European liberal values… the brand felt it had to do something that went beyond what the others are doing in Qatar," Chadwick told Reuters.
"But crucially it's not a blank shirt. The Hummel name is still there… so it's a middle way – a way of raising awareness and but at the same time targeting key audiences."
Chadwick added that the messaging would resonate with millennials who may see the move as a brave one by a brand willing to speak up on serious issues.
Hummel, however, has drawn criticism for manufacturing in China – which produces over 30% of its apparel – Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries where concerns around human rights and labour laws have been flagged.
It also sponsored Qatari club Al Kharaitiyat.
"We're aware that some of these (countries) are also dealing with issues… on the other hand, we don't believe that it is the right solution to stop our business as it'll mean a lot of people would lose their jobs," a Hummel spokesperson said.
"We have been sponsoring teams all over the world. (But) that does not take anything away from our aim of changing the world through sport."
Soccer finance expert Kieran Maguire, who teaches at the University of Liverpool, believes that brands cannot be completely virtuous in a modern production process.
"At the same time if you take the approach of doing nothing, then you're in a race to the bottom," he said.
"This is not Hummel's decision alone. The fact that the Danish football federation's (DBU) badge has also been effectively monochromed out of the kit is indicative of the stance taken by them."
Qatar's World Cup organisers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, have disputed Hummel's statement that "the tournament has cost thousands of people their lives".
"There have been a lot of different interpretations on the actual number of victims," the Hummel spokesperson said, adding that the company had been in close dialogue with rights group Amnesty International.
"However, the most important thing… is the fact that there has been violence on basic human rights."
Hummel's positioning could lead to a dilemma for other kit sponsors at the World Cup but they are unlikely to follow suit given their global presence, Maguire said.
Denmark are the only team to have Hummel as their kit manufacturers while the likes of Nike and Adidas have contracts with multiple teams.
"Adidas and Nike have significant markets as far as Qatar is concerned," Maguire added. "Also, these kits are designed months in advance and while a last-minute decision isn't impossible, it will have to be in alignment with the football associations."