Yet another large company has found themselves the subject of the outrage of the internet as a result of culturally insensitive advertising. Sigh.

This time it is clothing retailer H&M, who over the weekend posted an image in their online store of a hoodie modeled by a Black child that read "Coolest monkey in the jungle." Just in case you aren't familiar, African-Americans and other people of African descent around the world have long been called or compared to monkeys in an effort to degrade their humanity. 

Thus when a company with expansive global reach and resources like H&M produces an ad that so closely visualizes a racial slur, it is clear why so many people are enraged.

Much like Dove, Pepsi, and Kellogs, brands that recently found themselves in similar public relations debacles due to culturally insensitive promotional materials, H&M issued an apology. In an email to CBS MoneyWatch, a company spokesman stated:

We sincerely apologize for this image. It has been now removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do, and will be reviewing our internal routines.

This story, like those that have come before it is disappointing to witness and write about. And the more the same mistakes get repeated by companies who have more than enough resources to prevent them, it highlights the need for a refresher in how to effectively serve diverse customers.

Here are three simple rules to follow.

1. Acknowledge that your customers are not homogenous.

We live in a global world, where you are serving people with various different backgrounds and experiences. This applies even if your company focuses on serving a US-based audience.

Here are a few data points that show just how much the U.S. population is changing:

  • 49 percent of kids under age 15 (Generation Z) are minorities, and are now "the most diverse generation"
  • Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce
  • By 2032 people of color will make up the majority of the American working class
  • Women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children
  • About one in six American kids lives in a blended family
  • The share of American adults who have never been married is at a historical high
  • The number of adults living in middle-income populations is shrinking and hovers at around 50 percent

Increasingly, if you want to earn the valuable attention and resources of a diverse customer group, you will have to find a way to make your products and services relevant to them and their unique needs. 

Nike did this last year when they launched a line of sportswear that enables Muslim women who wish to remain covered, to still participate in sports.

2. Build a diverse team.

When you have a team that reflects the people you serve, you greatly diminish the chances of publishing work that so greatly offends a large group of your customers. You'll be tuned-in, rather than tone-deaf.

At my old corporate job, we made insulin pumps for people with diabetes. A large percentage of our marketing and sales team were people who had diabetes and used our products. 

The insights they provided those of us who did not have diabetes gave us a deeper degree of intimacy with the customers we were serving. And it also deepened our degree of empathy, because we were able to see and experience daily some of the more nuanced aspects of living with diabetes that would have been more difficult to glean during market research.

3. Treat your customers like friends.

Business is about belonging. And when you care about your customers, the way you do about your friends, you'll do what is necessary to include them, and to speak to them in a manner that is culturally appropriate.

The H&M ad exists because the team who produced it were too lazy to understand the unfortunate history associated with the imagery. They didn't care enough to take the time to get it right. That doesn't have to be your story.

Don't let these recent missteps by these large companies deter you from serving diverse customers in a more meaningful way. 

Your customers don't expect you to be perfect. But they do expect the brands they are loyal to, to care enough to try. You will be rewarded when you do.

Published on: Jan 8, 2018