You may have heard of the clothing and accessories brand Zara. The Spanish-based company sells around the world and, as such, is expected to have a reasonable amount of cultural sophistication. But its brand took a big hit with the release of a product that sparked outrage: a striped kid's pajama top with what appeared to be a yellow Jewish star.

The symbol was used by the Nazis to identify Jews for harassment and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder. Combined with the prisoner-like stripes, it was an image out of a concentration camp. If that wasn't bad enough, the company had a 2007 problem with handbags that sported swastikas. Detect a pattern here?

In 2007, Zara had taken the bags off the market when complaints hit, and yesterday it removed the shirt from stores and its website. The brand tweeted that "We honestly apologize," and the shirts were pulled yesterday. According to part of a statement the company emailed me (addressed to "Alexander," suggesting that there may be a broader issue with detail there):

The t-shirt withdrawn was inspired by the classic American Westerns and has been taken out of circulation due to the potential similarity with the Star of David that has been used as a yellow star patch. Zara has issued a heartfelt apology on its social network profiles.

The garment was available only for just a few hours and sales of the t-shirt have been marginal. The items will be reliably destroyed.

It's a nice try, but will likely buy little to no credibility in the broader markets, even if the parent company wanted to "reiterate its utmost respect for all cultures and religions." One mistake like that--well, perhaps someone was clueless. Two within a few years is like fertilizer for a cynicism garden.

But being out of touch with culture and history is neither unusual nor relegated to large overseas companies. The tech industry has been rightly hit with charges of sexism, even among startups. Snack brand Pop Chips blew it with a video ad featuring Ashton Kutcher wearing brown make-up and using an "over-the-top accent"--according to BetaBeat--pretending to be an Indian named Raj.

If it could happen to them, it could happen to you. Here are a few things to remember when doing business.

We are in a multicultural world

It seems silly to even mention this because it should be so obvious. Your customers could be of any race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, or background. If you don't at least try to understand the nature of the current world, you're trying to do business out of a paper bag, and that's a big mistake.

People get pissed off for good reasons

Go back far enough into anyone's background and that person likely had ancestors who were oppressed. For many, there is no need to scale the family tree as the memories are too recent. There is a reason that many segments of the population get angry. They see modern inequities even if you don't and will react badly because people are thankfully over simply suffering in silence. There are plenty of ways for them to make a lot of noise.

Funny is hard to pull off

Humor can be a fabulous marketing tool. Misused, it can also blow up in your face. If your idea of funny is to lovingly poke fun at cultural stereotypes, you're running down the wrong road. Leave that to professional comedians who might come from that culture or offer enough art in their work to bridge gaps. You'll simply come across as patronizing at best.

Keep an eye on employees

Micromanagement is generally a problem for entrepreneurs. It's almost always a mistake. But when it comes to marketing, communications, product design, branding, and other aspects of the company that might come up against culture, keep an eye out. Perform a high-level inspection to be sure that someone with the sensitivity of a brick wall, or with some deeply seated issues, hasn't offended three-eighths of humanity.

Get an advisory board

You should have a number of people from different backgrounds who can see if something will come across as overtly hateful. Most things will likely be fine, but until the world is a far different place and a lot of old pain is finally wiped clean, a good dose of caution is wise.

Published on: Aug 28, 2014