Successful cross-cultural marketing requires today’s organizations to be socially and culturally competent entities with vast understanding of people, language, ethnicity, race, and other demographic and sociocultural challenges characterizing institutions and society. Companies must seek to bridge the gaps between people and their race, culture, and other differences. This means hiring diverse value creators, valuing social justice and equality, and keeping the focus on creating and delivering superior value and satisfaction to all stakeholders regardless of human social and physical characteristics. Business is all about acquiring, growing, and retaining customers and catering to their differences as valuable segments with unique and diverse needs.  

Organizations should accept that all instances of communication and interaction with stakeholders represent and affect marketing as these serve to affect perception of customer value via Service, Quality, Image, and Price (Weinstein’s SQIP Diamond). As business organizations witness events like those in Charlottesville unfold, they must consider how America’s current ethnic and racial challenges affect marketing communications efforts and act in ways to become more ethically and socially responsible marketers helping to address society’s causes and problems. Racial and ethnic blunders in marketing communications are not new and have been influenced by the types of events characteristic of Charlottesville, as well as deeper historical and social-cultural prejudices we have been unable to overcome for centuries.

While much of the blunders involving high profile issues of race and ethnicity seem to occur with the type of marketing communication known as advertising, they are not limited to that element of the marketing communications mix. Here are some examples of marketing communications blunders involving race and ethnicity:

1.      In April 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch debuted a line of T-shirts using Asian caricatures portraying Asian American oppression from the past as forced and indentured laborers, mocked the Buddha, and depicting various stereotypes of Asians. As a result of public outrage, the company had to recall the series of T-shirts.

2.      In August 2012, two models for Abercrombie & Fitch in South Korea took photos of themselves posing with what is known as “Asian squinty eyes” to mock Asian physical appearance, and this almost drove the company out of the market.

3.      In August 2017, Google fired a software engineer, James Damore, after he wrote what is regarded as an “anti-diversity” memo [“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”] questioning Google’s diversity efforts, and in which, he argued that the comparatively lower percentage of women in technical positions was a result of biological differences instead of discrimination.

Long before Abercrombie & Fitch’s sociocultural-ethnic and racially insensitive marketing, many big brand companies experienced the negative consequences of not understanding how differences in culture, ethnicity, race language, and other factors affect marketing and reception to brands. Here are several examples:

1.      Pepsi’s 1960s “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation” campaign which in the Chinese market translated to suggest that Pepsi brought customers ancestors back to life, something both offensive and impossible to Chinese customers.

2.      In the 1980s, when KFC debuted in China, the company’s popular slogan “finger-lickin’ good” was translated as “Eat your fingers off”.

3.      In 1992, Fiat, an Italian car manufacturer wanting to target modern independent working women in Spain designed a direct-mail marketing campaign for its Cinquecento hatchback by mailing out “love letters” on pink papers without indicating that it was a promotional creative advertisement. As a result, this led to panic among thousands of women with many refusing to leave their homes.

While we have made significant progress in some areas as far as race and ethnicity issues are concerned, there is still much to be done in terms of companies being more assertive and responsible players in addressing today’s social pains. Unfortunately, there are still companies that are feature racially insensitive marketing communications. For example, Colgate is still advertising and selling “Black People Toothpaste” (Hei Ren Yao Gao) in Asia, and we still see ethnic and racial undertones in movies and television advertisements.

Marketers must be knowledgeable and aware of issues of race, culture, and ethnicity in both past and present contexts and as a result, become more socially and culturally sensitive in their interactions with customers and other stakeholders. Cross-cultural marketing practices are important and companies and their leaders and managers need to invest in responsible and respectful marketing communications. Events such as Charlottesville can be used to educate employees on racial, ethnic, and cultural awareness as they act as value creators and providers for their companies. Moreover, companies expressing and showing solidarity on social justice and equality is a major reputation or image-building strategy that can lend support to such cause.

Image source: Melaniemilletics.com, 2017

Donovan A. McFarlane, M.I.B., Ed.D., D.B.A., is an Adjunct Professor of Marketing in the H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University. He can be reached at donovan@nova.edu