When Adidas released an all-white "Uncaged" shoe as part of a special Black History Month collection, the backlash came quickly.
"An all-white shoe for BHM? Really @adidas? Come on son! Do better dawg!" tweeted a consumer who goes by @DigitalFile_Dee, one of many tweets slamming the brand.
The retailer took the shoe off the shelves.
The brand fiascos bookending it fared about the same: Prada's monkey figurine with overly large red lips was pulled out of stores in December, and Gucci's black-and-red-mouthed balaclava sweater, which drew comparisons to blackface this month, was quickly shelved as well. Even celebrity brands are not immune: Last week, Katy Perry faced criticism for shoes in her fashion line that to some consumers seemed to evoke blackface.
Of course, some problems originate not in product development, but in the marketing. Witness Pepsi, in 2017, being accused of co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial gain with its now-infamous Kendall Jenner ad. The same year, Dove ran an ad in which a black model turned into a white woman. And in March 2018, Heineken's "Sometimes Lighter Is Better" ads created an uproar for appearing to suggest that lighter skin tones are better than darker ones.
The problem is chronic: Brands fail to read how new products and marketing will be received in a multicultural marketplace. To avoid the blunders and subsequent PR disasters, brands must diversify, and in more ways than one. Below, experts share advice on how to get this done, including what new tools can aid in the process.
Experts say such mistakes are common because the people making the decisions lack diversity. A chief marketing officer's idea of cool, for instance, doesn't always track with how consumers are feeling. And often, when a campaign incites a backlash, people are caught off-guard.
Brands need to ensure that decision makers, whether in product development or marketing, represent a diverse set of groups, including different genders, ages, ethnicities and geographical locations.
"With the Gucci thing, people may just think it's a cool fashion item," says Michael Street, a senior digital strategist at Chicago-based Burrell Communications, a multicultural agency. "But when other communities look at it, they see something different."
François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, which owns Gucci, conceded to The Wall Street Journal that it has teams that review products and marketing materials for Asian markets, but "it's true we don't do that for the African-American community, and that's a mistake."
Ahmad Islam, CEO and managing partner of Ten35, an agency that specializes in reaching multicultural, millennial and Gen Z consumers, says, "Far too often, brands are making decisions on topics related to culture without any cultural experts in the room. ... We're in an environment where society is much more highly sensitized to issues around culture."
Brands, he advises, should be "throwing out the rulebook in terms of how to best gather insights and data around consumers [while] adjusting the model in a way that allows you to get a deep understanding of what the data says—and what it means."
Research ideas early
When it comes to marketing, say experts, consider using research tools that allow brands to canvass a wide selection of consumers early on.
One tool, Brandstage—a partnership created two years ago by market research firm Kantar and Chicago-based Second City, the improv comedy club—helps brands play with concepts and judge feedback before they start filming an ad, says Anne Hunter, executive VP of strategy and growth at Kantar.
"It's really important for brands to discuss concepts and discuss environment with their core consumers before they even start developing advertising," she says. Kantar also offers marketers a product called Spotlight, which includes video interviews in consumers' homes about ad concepts.
Burrell keeps an eye on trends and offers monthly snapshots to marketers by tapping into the social media posts of 10,000 African-American influencers in its Social Listening Lab, started around two years ago. The lab provides a glimpse into thoughts and opinions, and doles out the insights on platform preference (Instagram versus YouTube, for instance) of such influencers. Burrell can track which brands, campaigns, hashtags and topics are trending so that marketers can keep tabs on real-time conversations.
"We really tap into the heart and soul of what it means to be a social company now and see what consumers are talking about," says Street. "Everyone needs to be up on their brand conversation as it happens."
Gauge, a new market research company in operation for roughly a year, connects marketers with tastemakers in diverse communities to help the brands avoid racially insensitive advertising. The company pays influencers to take surveys via apps on their mobile devices in what it calls a "rapid mobile focus group," then delivers the feedback to brands. Gauge recently promoted itself with a #NoMoreBadAds social campaign. The reason mistakes are made is that brands "don't engage the right people in the course of their research," said Joshua DuBois, CEO, on a recent Gauge conference call.
Interpret the data
After ads air, the research should continue. Brands are even increasingly paying closer attention to nonverbal cues. Kantar, for example, offers facial coding on ads to better understand consumers' "gut reactions," Hunter says. Of course, this is helpful for all audiences, not just for multicultural groups, but it can still help brands make quick reactions if a campaign fails. Brands can then make proper adjustments to the creative.