A closer look at H&M’s ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie controversy and racially insensitive imaging

Branding mistakes are a public relations team’s worst nightmare. As technology emerges and advances, industry experts have worked tirelessly to keep up with the mass dissemination of information. The meteoric rise of social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook means damaging information can reach larger audiences in smaller amounts of time. With the fast pace and potential for virality in a crisis, how can an organization stay ahead of the public under extremely challenging circumstances? Read on.

In early 2018, an image of a black child wearing an H&M hoodie with the words’ coolest monkey in the jungle’ exploded on social media platforms. Even worse? The child was juxtaposed against a white model sporting a hoodie with the words ‘Mangrove Jungle survivor expert’ embroidered across the chest. OUCH. 

Without any doubt, H&M’s sweatshirt advertisement falls far short of racial sensitivity. It is perpetuating neocolonial tropes and controversial, racially-charged slurs. Now, a year and a half later, the incident serves as a powerful lesson for branding and marketing professionals who want to avoid potentially reputation-destroying mistakes. 

H&M’s epic branding blunder comes at a time when cross-cultural understanding is especially critical to a campaign’s success. Consumer awareness is enhanced and viewed through the lenses of different social events occurring around the world. As a result, holding corporations accountable for inappropriate marketing and advertising efforts is on the rise. 

The Swedish-based retailer’s ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie emphasizes the growing importance of a culturally diverse workforce. Diversity can help detect and offset what may be considered racially insensitive imaging before it hits stores. 

The damage is done — now what?

Crises can be damaging — but they don’t have to be the end of the world. The trajectory of your business will depend largely on how you choose to handle the situation. Consumers and stakeholders appreciate companies that learn from mistakes and use the knowledge to make their brands better. 

  • Respond quickly and ethically. Stay on top of your mistake and be present and involved. Knowing all of the relevant and accurate information about the incident is the best way to respond quickly and succinctly to the media. 
  • Transparency is key. All PR professionals will tell you that the best thing you can do to save face after a mistake is to apologize publicly. Be honest with your stakeholders and take responsibility for your company’s shortcomings. 
  • Moving forward. Once an accident or misstep occurs, stakeholders and the public will want to know how you plan on bettering your company and safeguarding against similar problems in the future. Provide details of how you will use the current crisis to avoid future mistakes.

Preventing a future crisis

As part of a global network, large companies must remain culturally competent. With a presence in different regions, businesses need to research their marketing and branding strategies to make sure they align with each unique culture. 

H&M’s inability to spot such a profound mistake also highlights the need for different cultural perspectives throughout marketing and branding processes. Hiring people from a diverse set of backgrounds ensures you have a well-rounded group to review your company’s branding themes. Diversity also provides a much broader pool of marketing ideas. 

Closely monitor current social media platforms and news sites for interactions between brand followers and the company. Review all mentions, tags, and comments as they might contain praise or potentially threatening information or claims. Active monitoring of social media means that businesses have the opportunity to respond accordingly before false or damaging information spreads too far. 

Creating a crisis contingency plan and referring back to this plan is a great way to be prepared for a crisis. A solid plan can even help prevent one from occurring. Once you’ve created a crisis plan and shared it with your employees, the likelihood of spotting the warning signs of a crisis before it manifests becomes much higher. 

Before you get yourself into a bind, make sure your brand takes the precautions to prevent damaging mistakes.