Swedish clothing retailer H&M became a hot topic in recent days after one of its children’s hoodies stirred a firestorm of controversy. Reading “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” the hoodie was modeled by a young African American child.
Initially posted on H&M UK’s website, the item quickly went viral on social media, drawing swift criticism and accusations of racism and insensitivity to the African American community. Numerous celebrities, including The Weekend, Diddy, T.I. and LeBron James expressed their disappointment in the image.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
In response to the backlash, H&M removed the image and withdrew the hoodie from sale. In its apology statement, the brand admitted its mistake and promised to do everything possible to “prevent this from happening again in future.”
However, the apology fell flat for some people, who felt that a billion-dollar company like H&M should have known better. According to Reuters, on Saturday, several H&M stores in South Africa were vandalized by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) protesters.
The rise of social media has given people the tools to be more vocal about issues important to them. This, in turn, means that brands need to be much more careful about all aspects of their marketing and communications strategies. And this is especially important for global companies and organizations that operate across borders.
Though H&M may not have meant to be racist when posting the image online, it certainly came across as tone-deaf to many of its customers.
The same words and images can often represent completely different things to different people. To avoid potential misinterpretation, it is important to have marketing and communications teams that are as diverse as the brand’s stakeholders.