Retailers & controversy: publicity stunts or genuine mistakes?

In the past few months, a handful of retailers have created a social media storm over insensitive designs or campaigns that left many wondering how they could possibly still commit these mistakes in this day and age. But are they genuine mistakes? Or a sneaky ploy for free publicity?

“Innovators are inevitably controversial.”

Retailers nowadays seem to be living by Eva Le Gallienne’s quote.

While the harsh truth is that consumers can lose interest in brands, there is no denying the power of inquisitive consumers when retailers release insensitive creative designs or marketing campaigns. And while controversial products can attract “bad press”, retailers that have already made a name for themselves may overlook it and work to increase sales.

Birmingham City University fashion business lecturer Laura Arrowsmith believes that if retailers brush the backlash under the carpet, it may cause further implications.

“If they hold their hands up and profusely apologise they may be more likely to get away with it and shake off the negativity,” she told the Retail Gazette.

Earlier this year, Prada revealed details on its diversity advisory council after it was embroiled in a racism row in 2018. The accusations derived from the luxury fashion retailer’s use of monkey-like keychain figurines for its Pradamalia collection, which was criticised for being racially insensitive and blasted by the public for its blackface reference.

Prada initially defended itself, saying the Pradamalia range were “certainly not blackface” but then apologised in a Twitter statement, in which it also said it would set up an internal diversity panel to avoid similar incidents in the future. Prada also said it would donate any proceeds from Pradamalia already sold to a “New York-based organisation committed to fighting for racial justice, which is a value that we strongly believe in”.

Despite this, questions were raised as to why Prada hadn’t initially set up a panel beforehand to ensure a mistake like this never happened in the first place.

“Either there is a fatal lack of diversity and critical thinking amongst designers and decision-makers, or fashion houses are using controversial products as PR stunts to help set the stage for highly publicised positive changes in the future, such as diversity campaigns,” Madeline Petrow, chief executive of online fashion retailer Mamoq, told the Retail Gazette.

“Although we celebrate progressive steps, we do question the true motivations behind these changes and ask: is it really enough?”

“Although we celebrate progressive steps, we do question the true motivations behind these changes.”

It can be argued that retailers may accidentally overlook the possible repercussions of their actions due to the tight turnaround they face to release their products or marketing campaigns.

British Retail Consortium retail products policy advisor David Bolton said: “Fashion retailers have long sought to push the boundaries of what we currently wear.

“While the intention is rarely to offend, they sometimes misjudge the anticipated public reaction, and in such situations are usually quick to apologise for any offence caused.

“The rise of social media has no doubt amplified public reaction as more and more people are alerted to the existence of such products.”

Although social media might worsen the backlash for a brand, it’s also used as a tool to issue statements and apologies.

Over the past few months, Gucci and Burberry have joined Prada in using Twitter as well as Instagram to release official apologies over controversial designs.

Last month, Gucci apologised “for the offence caused” after an image of its women’s balaclava jumper – a black top that features neck with a mouth cut-out outlined in red – went viral on social media.

“The Gucci black ‘balaclava jumper’ is yet another example of a misstep by a fashion brand that has prompted a backlash on social media,” Warwick Business School marketing professor Qing Wang said.

“Blackface has a history of perpetuating offensive and racist stereotypes of African-Americans, dating back more than 200 years in the US.”

The argument that retailers are producing controversial designs for publicity stunts remains, though many may not even anticipate the backlash they receive.

An example is Dolce & Gabbana’s spring/summer collection in 2016, when the luxury Italian label posted videos of a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks, and was forced to cancel its Shanghai fashion show as it was embroiled in a racism row.

It showed that the efforts in attempting to connect with consumers can be a serious mistake if retailers didn’t consider whether they were being tone-deaf, insensitive or stereotypical.

“Burberry’s recent advertising campaign to connect with Chinese consumers on an emotional level also backfired, leading to a blitz of criticism on Chinese social media,” Wang told the Retail Gazette.

“The images from Burberry’s ‘modern’ Chinese Lunar New Year ad campaign were likened to Asian horror films.

“Despite the different contexts, one thing these ads have in common is the stereotypes they invoke.

“It is clear that western brands need to infuse more local knowledge into their global strategies.”

According to global affiliate network Awin, 24 per cent of Brits would no longer shop at a retailer involved in any sort of public row.

However, Heather Andrew – chief executive of neuroscience-based market researchers Neuro-Sight UK – added that controversial brand decisions often provoke strong emotional responses from consumers, which can work in brands’ favour, regardless of the sentiment.

“Even the most aggressive backlash might not have an adverse effect on a brand – or indeed, actual sales,” she told Retail Gazette.

“That’s because, when people feel strongly about something – even if it’s in a negative way – they’re more likely to encode it into memory. For brands, this is vital, because memory encoding has been shown to have strong links to future decision-making and actions.”

The risk of damaging their reputations by producing controversial items may be unlikely for retailers such as Gucci and Burberry due to their renowned status, but the chances of pushing further sales seems appealing to such brands.

“It is clear that western brands need to infuse more local knowledge into their global strategies.”

According to Sophie Light-Wilkinson, the vice president of Bazaarvoice, retailers would be “naive” to put short-term sales ahead of long term brand reputation.

“It is not just about increasing the sales of today, but understanding the impact any controversy will have on the sales of the future,” she said.

“Generation Z are becoming increasingly powerful and more socially conscious than the generations before them, and in the next several years will become the largest group of consumers globally.

“Gen Z are prioritising brands and retailers that show social awareness and responsibility. Damaging marketing campaigns and controversial products will leave a lasting legacy.”

It’s not just racism that is the main subject of offence with retailers. Last month, Burberry featured a hoodie with a noose around the neck during show at London Fashion Week.

The British luxury retailer and label was accused of making suicide seem fashionable, and responded to the furore by announcing diversity and inclusivity initiatives to increase awareness of sensitive and social issues, and to further train its employees.

It’s no secret that fashion retailers, especially luxury ones that focus on design and quality rather than fast fashion, are in the middle of a fierce competition. Therefore, many of them are pushing out unusual designs – such as Burberry’s noose hoodie – in order to be a stay ahead of their rivals.

“Within the fashion industry it is hard to constantly compete against other brands, it’s having a clear strategy that will make you stand out from the crowd,” Arrowsmith said.

“Brands are trying to be controversial and push the boundaries of what is acceptable and what will provide a shock factor, this will get people talking and provide wide media coverage.

“Unfortunately there are occasions where brands take it too far.”

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