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Reacting to Racism: How H&M Addresses Controversy with Transparency

Welcome back to the final Brand Marketing Spotlight, where we analyze the ad campaigns and marketing techniques of the world’s most successful companies. Today, we’ll showcase H&M to explore how modern brands use transparency to cultivate diversity and overcome negative reputations.

On June 1, 2020, H&M released a statement showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It outlined support for the black community, expressed sympathy for those impacted by violence, and highlighted several charitable actions it would make in the coming months. H&M was not unique in preparing such a statement. Still, one crucial detail stands out: The brand included a few brief sentences acknowledging its own “past mistakes.”

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There’s a good reason H&M included this caveat – the brand has faced multiple race-related scandals over the years. Dealing with a single incident is bad enough, but repeated instances highlight a distinct lack of sensitivity towards black customers. What’s more, these missteps give H&M a reputation that undermines any positive efforts about diversity the company tries to put forward.

To its credit, H&M appears to be doing its part to learn from each incident. That they recur is not necessarily a sign of failure but a reminder of how challenging it can be to address systemic racism within any organization. Beyond the culture reset, overcoming a negative reputation is a long game that requires consistency, transparency, and a willingness to participate in a larger conversation. The good news is change is possible – though it’s unlikely to happen overnight.

Stereotypes on display

Of all of H&M’s race-related missteps, perhaps the most widely known example occurred in 2018. The company released a promotional photo with a black model in a hooded sweater with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on the front – referencing centuries old racial stereotypes. The public reaction was immediate, inspiring protests in South Africa before H&M ultimately recalled the shirt.

Such events are problematic not just because of a single image but also because many flawed decisions led to its debut. H&M hired a black model for the photograph, approved it for promotions, and displayed it in H&M stores. At best, it suggests that everyone at H&M didn’t see a problem or weren’t particularly motivated to address it.

After the outcry, H&M took action to correct its mistake, pulling the hoodie from circulation and assuming responsibility for what happened. It also took the step of appointing Annie Wu as its new global leader for diversity and inclusiveness, making a more substantial effort to change its work culture.

Unfortunately, H&M also gave statements that downplayed the issue as accidental. “The impact and repercussions of this mistake were big and serious, and as we said at the time, we were truly sorry,” Annie Wu said in an interview.

“I do think though that we can all see that it was actually a genuine mistake and, if we’re really honest, we can see that it was probably just down to a series of mistakes or ‘misses’ that led to this slipping through.”

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From small mistakes to a big reputation

H&M would quickly realize that ingrained racism – especially the kind one considers unintentional or non-malicious – is much harder to address than it appears. A year later, the company found itself in hot water when a children’s clothing ad neglected to style a young black model’s hair, suggesting that the industry pays little attention to natural hairstyles. However, far more serious was the beanie named internally with a racial slur by one of H&M’s owned brands.

Individually, each event looks like a mistake that H&M can quickly address with public action. Taken as a whole, they give H&M a reputation for ingrained racism that it cannot dismiss easily. As Roots to Ends president, Christine P. Augustin, said after its un-styled hair advertisement was published: “This is not the first time that H&M has done something like this, so I wasn’t surprised, but I was very upset.”

The consequences of a negative reputation are far more insidious than any one event. They generate feelings of outrage in customers that linger long after the inciting incident has passed. Over time, such a reputation can make it challenging to acquire new customers, ultimately harming your bottom line.

H&M genuinely seems to be trying to do the right thing, though with the knowledge that it has likely alienated some consumers forever. The company publicly acknowledges its faults while pushing for increased diversity, both within the organization and its marketing materials.

The retailer’s campaigns put forward ad creative that include people of all ages, backgrounds, and skin colors to reflect its global reach and audience. Unfortunately, in a worldwide organization, sometimes it just takes one misstep to reinforce a negative reputation.

Sadly, uprooting centuries of ingrained racist attitudes, behaviors, and stereotypes is incredibly difficult to do – both in life and in marketing. Even a global organization that promotes diversity will have blind spots. What’s more, expensive diversity programs sometimes have the effect of reducing diversity within an organization, not promoting it. Something more is necessary. But what?

Progress is difficult, not impossible

Perhaps the first step is merely acknowledging that combating racism takes time. Sometimes that means progress is uneven but remains possible all the same. In the meantime, being transparent about your objectives and missteps can make the progress you’ve achieved feel more genuine.

Another crucial step is to listen to diverse voices, both within and outside of your organization. “This has been historically a Swedish company. And we are now shifting over to being a global company, but that won’t be changed just by training alone,” Wu told CNN in response to the beanie incident. “That has to do with how we also expose ourselves to different cultures, to different people, and how we really include them in everyday conversations.

Finally, it’s vital to remember that progress is taking place, even if it moves at a glacial pace. When H&M halted production of the racially insensitive beanie, it wasn’t because of a public outcry, but because H&M employees spoke up internally. This shows that change is possible even within a global company when a transparent process is in place. There’s still a long way to go, but that remains a promising step all the same.

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