#135 H&M blunders in South Africa
In January 2018, Swedish global fashion retailer H&M had closed several of its stores temporarily. The move was necessary to protect its employees, prevent damage to its stores, and stop further protests. What had happened? For a short while, H&M’s online store carried hoodies with a variety of slogans. One of the images showed a black child wearing one of the hooded sweatshirts that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Although H&M was quick to denounce racism and apologiz to the public, the damage had already been done. Politicians of South Africa’s second-largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, were quick to exploit the situation for their own purposes, and gathered protesters at various H&M stores where mannequins were toppled, racks overturned, and merchandise scattered. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at H&M intended to be racist. It is more likely that H&M simply took its eyes off the ball for a moment, and blundered badly out of carelessness. In a wider context, it might also be that what happened is a byproduct of globalization. In a time when global competition is cutthroat, when product development and shipping cycles get shorter and shorter, and where scale is reached through maximum global standardization, it’s not easy to understand all nuances in international markets and to make quick adaptations. Unfortunately, in this case, it was more than a nuance, and it’ll take quite a bit of effort and time for H&M to rebuild good will.
February 11, 2018 @ 7:54 pm
H&M may have made a fatal judgment error in advertising a black boy in a “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie to the South Africa market. Most companies try to standardize as much as possible and adapt only as much as necessary. To avoid the cost and risk of changing products, H&M standardized their products to drive efficiency. However, to maximize the potential in the foreign South African target market, adaptation should have been considered which could have led to a higher acceptance among customers. There is a balanced approach between standardization and adaptation where the positive net effects between the cost of adaptation and the savings from standardization are greatest. For H&M, adaptation pressures will lead the company into an adaptation strategy in order to continue to exist in the foreign market. The CAGE framework identifies cultural, administrative, geographic and economic differences between countries and could be used to help H&M identify international strategies. It will take time to build back a positive reputation. Nonetheless, H&M can adopt the balanced approach between standardization and adaptation where they adapt in some areas, such as marketing, while standardizing others, such as product and price.
February 11, 2018 @ 8:39 pm
A few thoughts come to mind when considering H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” advertisement. Creating the ad in the race-sensitive environment we are in was obviously a misstep by H&M, and one that could have been easily avoided. Race and equality seem to be hot topics worldwide, and this ad can be considered offensive to multiple groups and cultures. In some ways it’s worse than the Nike “Air” disaster, or Coca Cola’s Saudi Arabia ad for the 1994 World Cup because it could be considered offensive to multiple groups. Ultimately, a seemingly small error could be disastrous for H&M as they will likely suffer brand and reputational damage across multiple countries. However, I think that protesters gathering and vandalizing the H&M stores because of the advertisement error was a bit excessive. The store and brand was suffering enough damage through social media, and taking it out on the store’s employees was not the most constructive way to express distaste for the ad.
February 12, 2018 @ 6:05 am
Despite the geographical distance between each country, a scandal abroad is the same as a scandal at home. H&M’s blunder is a perfect example of this. I will say that I don’t think H&M set out with malicious intent. However, they were negligent when it came to their choice in model. I’m not too sure as to what Sweden’s racial climate is, but after listening to many discussions, via podcast, Americans were offended. The reason is that the black community equates a monkey reference to them being less evolved (or less than white). Looking at the U.S.’ history there was a time when black people were viewed as less than human and even referred to as monkeys in a derogatory way. Although many people may argue that we need to move on, it is still culturally insensitive. By all means, H&M should have a jungle themed kid’s apparel line, but it should be a culturally appropriate adaptation. They need to be mindful as to what they’re releasing and who’s modeling it. If there is a discrepancy between the garment and the model, then that should be reevaluated. That’s their responsibility as a provider for the global market.
March 12, 2018 @ 2:59 pm
I have found the case really interesting, as H&M really tends to standardize in the expanding countries. In this case, it was a maybe small mistake for them, without expecting that huge outcome and rivalry – I believe it happened to other companies in other countries, however it always depends on the reaction and culture of the accused population. Colors differ people and this is still a big issue international companies cannot close their eyes from, once they started acting on more continents and various countries. Once you have crossed your own board and gone international, it is inevitable to be aware of the various cultural and religious differences and do not harm any of them. It is definitely not an easy job to do and requires lots of research before publishing a new trend or product. However, it is a must in operating internationally and if you want to avoid such incidents as in South Africa. The reputation is not only ruined in this country, but will soon spread over the whole globus and it takes thousand times longer to rebuilt that trust than once destroyed it so quickly. The fact that H&M is standardizing not only there came across my mind, once I have entered the new opened store in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I was looking for some summer swim clothes, but was I found were gloves and scarves – I was totally shocked since the weather was definitely not suitable to the clothing. I am not sure if they did it on purpose or were just trying to push on their standardized products. In fact, I am not sure if there will be people buying real winter clothes in the countries, where it almost never snows. Standardization is fine and simplifies tasks in certain ways, however, some adaption to specific regions need to be taken into account.
July 1, 2018 @ 10:07 am
I am sure that H&M is not a racist company. Like mentioned in the blogpost, I also think that they just took its eyes of the ball for a moment. Even to that it is obvious to me, that H&M needs now a lot of time to gain part of their image back. I think, through their environmental-thinking and hiring models with every skin colour and size, they will manage to be the “old ones” again.
Because of this mistake I also think about Zara, they had a blouse with twisted cross patterns. They also had problems after this collection, but they promptly took that down and now they are also back at their image again, I think.
July 14, 2018 @ 11:05 am
Due to the fact that H&M is an international company, it is always hard to adapt to every single market. Of course, they made a mistake that understandably caused a stir in some countries. Actually H&M has always been very successful in addressing different nations with the help of their international campaigns. However, this is not always possible because of cultural differences, and I think they have responded correctly to your mistake, apologizing and not trying to justify the campaign. Even dealing with your own mistakes is important for an international company and in this case they have responded quite well, even if it will certainly take some time to restore the old image.
July 15, 2018 @ 10:59 am
This case was real unfortunate, but H & M should have thought beforehand about that. The main problem is, that with the digital word of mouth, images like that can spread around the world in no matter of time. Furthermore there are some countries in the world, which are more socially aware than others like Germany or the USA. This could lead to a huge backlash.
Or just remember the ZARA „Striped sheriff t-shirt“ which shows an uncanny resemblance to the uniforms at concentration camps (it even had a yellow six-pointed star on it). Maybe you can also remember the swastika handbag of ZARA. It may be a religious symbol in Asian countries, but it is not that difficult to grasp that somewhere else it is a symbol of hate and falls under the constitutional protection acts in some other countries like Austria or Germany.
I would highly recommend companies to be more culturally aware and follow one simple rule – „Think global, act local”.
March 17, 2019 @ 7:55 pm
In a world where multinational organizations must run at almost light speed in order to stay in place and not fall behind, even the slightest misstep can be disastrous. In this case, H&M made the deadly sin of being careless and culturally / politically tone deaf. An international company must have a level of sensitivity for the political and cultural climate of the markets it is going to operate in. For H&M to print this image of the boy in the sweater means that several people from H&M saw this image and approved it. It would be different if this was the twitter feed of an executive who made an inappropriate joke or comment. That could be said to be a single person not exercising proper judgment. However, this is an international ad campaign. There are entire departments of people devoted to scrutinizing each image generated by H&M. They are after all a fashion company. Image is everything, especially when images can travel at light speed across the planet. An international perspective is needed if the firm is going to operate internationally. If this was done on purpose, or it was several levels of failed oversight, either way it is unacceptable. Knowing the implications of your actions across each market is critical if a company is going to operate across international markets. Cultural and political ignorance can be a death sentence.
June 21, 2020 @ 2:01 pm
Companies like H&M are making campaigns and products all over the world because they are global players and that works out well most of the times. But as soon as they touch or they think they touch such sensitive topics like discrimination or racism, it is crucial for them to define their products for example country specific. Of course, this is a lot of work but there are cultural differences and such a mistake like mentioned here could ruin the whole company and it takes years to rebuild its reputation. Even slight mistakes which affect only one country can spread all around the internet and are made public within hours which is a disaster for the image of that international company. Apologizing to the public is the least they can do but for having a reputation like before the company has to work on it every day.
June 29, 2020 @ 3:54 pm
H&M made a enormous mistake when they had the hoodie with the image of a black child in their range, which said “Coolest monkey in the jungle”.
First of all, when I think about South Africa, I think about the apartheid and the long history concerning race. I also think about Nelson Mandela fighting for equal rights. And if you consider all the history of this country, it is obviously clear that it is impossible and a big no-go to try to sell something like that.
But in my opinion, H&M didn’t do that on purpose, because if this hoodie would have been available just in some European countries for example, we might not even talk about it at all. It would make sense to me that this hoodie might have been a standardized product and before opening the shops in South Africa, they didn’t checked the range if something might be offensive or inappropriate.
June 29, 2020 @ 7:12 pm
Since H&M is one of the largest fashion retailers in the world and act internationally, there is an endless list of things to keep in mind. H&M might try to standardize as much as possible, but should also adapt to the different countries if needed. However, this case shows the importance of knowledge in intercultural aspects. Companies have responsibility toward the society and therefore have to think wisely what they release to the public. Additionally, companies always have to keep an eye on political as well as cultural aspects/differences. It’s essential to check the content, made for the public, twice. Furthermore, this case shows that even small mistakes can cause huge consequences.
However, as already mentioned in the blog post, H&M might simply take its eyes off the ball and blundered badly. In other words, I am pretty sure that the fashion retailer H&M it not a racist company.
February 24, 2021 @ 12:00 am
What is it about clothing companies launching lines that are so blatantly offensive? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this wasn’t meant to be racist. However, how is it possible that (presumably) various people screened the clothes and it didn’t even cross their mind that this could be offensive?
This really reminds me of a similar scandal by H&M’s competitor ZARA. A couple of years ago, the label launched a pullover that featured blue and white stripes along with a yellow star. It looked like prisoners’ uniforms that were used back in the Third Reich. The resemblance was painfully close. Obviously, this didn’t go well for ZARA and they had to issue an apology too. Similarly to H&M, the company was rather quick to react and took the criticism seriously. Then again, it’s not like they had a choice, right? In the age of social media, stonewalling (which is completely ignoring criticism) is never a good option. Anyway, the whole scandal leaves me wondering: Was that the result of quick adaptations and short cycles too or a hidden message from a decision making part of the company about an totally wrong ideology?
Here you can find out more about the ZARA mishap: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/panorama/skandal-bei-zara-judenstern-und-hakenkreuze/10615216.html
June 16, 2021 @ 5:50 pm
Personally, I think that launching a hoodie with the inscription “coolest monkey in the jungle” and a black child wearing it on an image, published on the website of H&M, certainly damaged their image. Since H&M is one of the largest fashion retailers in the world and act internationally, there is an endless list of things to keep in mind when creating a new collection. Of course, mistakes can happen and H&M is for sure no racist-organisation – however, I think that this kind of indirect discrimination should not happen, especially in a world where every step of a company is planned for so long and in such a well-thought-out way. Maybe it was deliberate bad publicity that should draw people’s attention to the brand again or only a series of unfortunate events.
July 6, 2021 @ 4:10 pm
This blog post clearly shows how important product adaptation in the clothing industry is. Internationalisation in this sector means that, not only, different weather conditions and religions have to be considered, but also, cultural differences as values and humour.
And that is where H&M failed. While in Sweden racism hardly matters today, South African people are confronted with and remembered of their race daily. Therefore, Swedish people take the statement “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with humour, no matter who wears the sweatshirt. South Africans, however, might think the statement underlines that they are different – that they are less educated and live under cheaper conditions.
Looking at the low power distance in the country, the reactions of the public to H&M’s mistake are becoming quite clear. The employees were offended because South Africans are on the opinion that employees are in the same boat as their bosses and that therefore, it is their fault as well.
July 11, 2021 @ 8:48 pm
In my opinion managers and staff who are responsible for product development should be able to recognize differences of customer behaviour of different countries – this also includes the ideal design of a product.
The fact that the responsible people for product design of H&M ignored the cultural differences and failed to notice that the slogan on the hoodie is racist, is careless. Especially that the responsible people of H&M get the marketing mix – product, price, place, promotion, people and processes – right for other cultures is crucial. Moreover marketers should be aware of the fact that a message that works in one country doesn’t mean that the same message works in another country.
I firmly believe that there is no place for racism in our world although this might was a mistake of the responsible people of H&M.
January 9, 2022 @ 12:55 am
The giant retail chain H&M dropped the ball when selecting merchandise and marketing material to send to their retail stores. Images showing a black child wearing one of their hooded sweatshirts that said: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” is not appropriate even if the marketing material was not being sent to parts of Africa. H&M’s head of marketing should have never approved the photo nor should it have been taken with a black child or any child at all. If H&M wanted to sell that particular item, they should have used a mannequin wearing the article. District and regional managers in South Africa should have spoken up and refused to have the marketing material be on display in their stores. The repercussion of their marketing caused their reputational image in South Africa and around the world to be damaged due to their standard globalization of marketing and merchandise being shown around the world. H&M should give more control to their local markets in deciding which marketing material to show in stores and be portrayed to represent their area. If given the choice, a local store manager would clearly see the image and not allow it to be placed up in their store.
January 11, 2022 @ 12:01 am
“Its hard to imagine that anyone at H&M intended to be racist” is a statement I also agree with, however producing a sweater that had a black child wearing a hoodie with the phrase “Coolest Monkey In the Jungle” is unacceptable. There may be an argument of cultures not understanding the meaning of this, but I am personally having a hard time believing that. My concern is how did it first get designed, approved, sent to vendors, sent back for approval, then uploaded to the stores online website with no one questioning this? It could be that there were questions about it, but as a manager or supervisor of either of those departments this is what needs to be stopped immediately. With my short time as an assistant product developer, I learned that it was our job to work closely and sometimes even challenge the designers. This does not just mean certain measurements, colors, fabric, etc. but also what the customer would think or feel when they wear this piece of clothing. While the physical damage and closure that occurred at H&M stores in South Africa are unfortunate, I hope this changed their guidelines for the quality checks that need to be done starting with the design team.
January 14, 2022 @ 3:46 am
As a fashion company, H&M want to be able to bring their products across the globe. Like what the blog stated, there was probably a short time where they lost sight of what their goal was, causing them to make one of the largest careless mistakes for their South African market. Understanding not only the culture but the history of the people is important because some communities are constantly being reminded that they are not worth as much compared to other communities. Yes, the slogan written across the sweater can be taken as a racial remark in South Africa, understanding their point of view is important. When expanding your market into other counties, its is a key factor to consider changes specific for that group of consumers, rather than making everything the same across the board. Making sure that you as a company or brand are adapting to what those people want and making them feel like you are worth something to them is what helps you grow in that particular space, especially when it comes to commodities like clothing.
February 16, 2022 @ 6:18 am
This article presents a very valuable lesson. In many cases, the platform’s business model is the most promising and is presented in various places as a very good example. This case revealed the weaknesses of this platform business model. In this case, H & M sold a large number of hoodies with innumerable designs to the world. It is impossible for H & M’s management department to check the products one by one. It is not unlikely that one of the designs will insult a group of people, either intentionally or accidentally. From this article, it seems that H & M’s response was not slow, but the situation was going very serious. Companies need to think about some measures to prevent such incidents.
July 6, 2022 @ 6:39 pm
First of all, market research is one of the most important points a company, and especially a big company such as H&M, has to do. There leads no way around. When deciding to expand in different countries and to have to deal with very different cultures the strategy and exact type of product as in the home market, might not work elsewhere. The whole process of thinking has to be adjusted to the different market. It surely happened by accident, but this was a fault that a company such as H&M cannot afford to make. Hopefully, they have learnt a lot from this and think twice, before spreading campaigns over the world without taking each market into account.