On Monday, Heineken pulled what many labeled a 'racist ad" for its light beer.

The ad shows a bartender sliding a bottle of Heineken light to a woman who looked like she could use it on a hot day. Before the bottle reached the woman, it slid past three different Black people on the long bar, before the tagline "sometimes lighter is better' appeared on the screen. See the ad here:


The backlash on social media was swift, including from Grammy-award winning artist Chance the Rapper.

Heineken responded by emailing an apology to news site indy100:

"For decades, Heineken has developed diverse marketing that shows there's more that unites us than divides us.

"While we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer--we missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns."

Heineken is the latest company to find themselves getting called out publicly for culturally insensitive advertising. Most notably H&M, Dove, and Pepsi have all taken turns apologizing for advertisements that missed the mark.

This shouldn't deter well-meaning businesses who want to do a good job of engaging and serving people of color or other historically underserved minority groups. Marketing to diverse customers is the new standard, especially as the U.S. swiftly approaches being a minority-majority country.

You should learn these two lessons from the mistakes of Heineken and others to do a better job of marketing to multi-cultural audiences:

1. Cultural intelligence is mandatory when marketing to diverse customers

Representation is important. And while the Heineken ad included many diverse faces, the context of the messaging in relation to those images is where the ad goes off the rails.

For hundreds of years, there's been no shortage of imagery that has implied both directly and indirectly that dark skin isn't beautiful, and that there is something wrong with it. That's the reason why there was so much backlash for the Dove ad late last year.

Thus the way the imagery was portrayed in the Heineken ad, conjured up references that dark skin is not desirable and that "lighter is better." Whether or not the brand intended to send that message, because of the historical-cultural context, that is the way many received it.

When marketing to groups who have a different background than you, you are responsible for taking the time to walk a mile in your customers' shoes. Your perspective is limited by your frame of reference. So you've got to invest time to view your marketing through the lens of your customer, whose life experiences are different from yours, rather than your own.

If you need help doing that, reach out to experts who can assist you. For instance, Pixar hired a cultural advisor for its Academy-Award winning film Coco to make sure it was authentically representing Mexican culture throughout the movie.

2. Apologies should drip with empathy, rather than justification

Rather than acknowledging the customers who were hurt by the images with their ad, Heineken chose to first give themselves a pat on the back for their track record in "diverse marketing." 

Then after defending the ad, "we feel the ad was referencing our Heineken light beer," they finally acknowledged it missed the mark.

My first reaction to reading Heineken's apology was an eye roll. In my mind, their statement was the equivalent of "I'm sorry if the ad offended you." While the company did note they are internalizing the feedback, it doesn't appear that the company understands why people are upset. 

Business is about belonging. And you can only make someone feel like they belong with you, when you get them at a deep level, and care enough to understand what gives them joy, what causes them pain, and everything in between. 

Heineken missed an opportunity with their apology. They could have seized the chance to let their customers who saw this ad as something bigger than a reference to light beer, know that they do indeed belong with them. 

Their choice to prop up their track record and intentions instead only reiterated their lack of empathy and connectedness to this demographic. No bueno.

You can effectively serve diverse customer groups, as long as you commit to placing empathy and cultural intelligence as cornerstones of your effort.

Published on: Mar 27, 2018