October 25, 2021

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Cultural appropriation in marketing: How to spot, avoid and learn from it

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Marketers naturally seek creative inspiration from an array of trends, cultural moments and media. And in our digitally-connected world, we can experience diverse cultures, customs and communities without looking up from our phones.

As a result, marketers have many opportunities to create culturally relevant content and tap into rising social trends. But when marketers take advantage of elements of a culture without their brand first earning credibility in that community, they risk crossing the line into cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation?

The term cultural appropriation, coined in the 1980s, is “used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group” in a way that does not recognize their origin, meaning and true value.

Native American headdresses at Fashion Week, box braids on white women and whitewashed Mahjong tiles are more glaring examples of cultural appropriation. More nuanced examples have come from marketers misusing and misunderstanding memes, GIFs, slang and other language choices. For instance, words like “periodt,” “sis,” and “woke” come from African American English Vernacular (AAVE). “Throwing shade” is rooted in drag and ball culture. “Spirit animals” and “tribes” are uniquely tied to Native American culture and spiritualism. And yet we often see these terms slapped on marketing content and branded products, with no recognition of or sensitivity to their origins.

If a brand is actually Black, LGBTQIA+ or Native-owned, or very closely connected to these diverse audiences, these terms could be a relevant and authentic part of their brand voice. But it becomes an issue when brands or marketers that are not considered part of the community try to benefit, with zero credibility and zero value added.

Over the last several years, cultural appropriation in marketing has become magnified by (and often called out through) social media.

“Social media can introduce us to new communities and trends. At the same time, social gives visibility to the actions, tendencies and behaviors of others, both in a negative and positive way,” said Cassandra Blackburn, Director of DEI at Sprout Social. “And when you add the layer of cultural appropriation, social is where people will call out anyone leveraging culture in an abusive or manipulative way.”

5 tips for creating culturally relevant content, while avoiding appropriation

Brand marketers have a responsibility to use discernment and create content that is relevant without being exploitative.

“It’s important to consider the different experiences, stories and values at play for our brand, our customers and the culture at large. When we consider these factors, we can get closer to addressing what people really want from our brand. And ultimately, if we don’t reflect our values and lead with authenticity in our messaging, then we’re going to miss the mark,” said Blackburn.

To create more engaging, culturally relevant content while avoiding appropriation, Blackburn suggests these tips.

1. Commit to cultural investments all year round

Time and time again, during Black History Month, LGBTQIA+ Pride Month and other annual cultural observances, we see brands celebrating but getting called out for failing to support those communities year round. Before acknowledging these kinds of holidays on social, Blackburn urges brands to look inward.

“The brand and company itself have to commit and do the hard work internally, before doing the work externally. In the midst of everything that we were experiencing in 2020, brands put out beautiful, colorful statements, campaigns and the like. But what are you hearing now? Are they upholding commitments?” said Blackburn.

Ben & Jerry’s is a standout brand when it comes to creating culturally relevant content that reinforces their commitment to social justice, democracy, LGBTQIA+ Equality and other issues they care about. They’ve made it part of the fabric of their brand and it’s reflected in their social content.

2. Bring diverse people and perspectives into the content creation process

 If you want to diversify your content, it’s important to bring experts from those spaces into the fold. “Brands can’t afford to make decisions in a silo. Not only should companies embrace diverse perspectives internally, but it’s also important that they diversify the experts, creators, consultants and community members they partner with,” said Blackburn.

If you invite people and perspectives from a specific culture into the creative process to understand how you can celebrate that culture, you’re more likely to come out on the side of appreciation, not appropriation.

Chinese New Year might not seem like a marketing campaign opportunity for the Belgian luxury brand Maison Margiela. But by partnering with a local Chinese artist, they were able to create a beautiful, culturally relevant campaign that respectfully pays homage to an ancient Chinese painting, Ten Bulls, and alludes to the Year of the Ox. On top of that, they chose Weibo and WeChat as the platforms for the campaign, recognizing their status as the largest social platforms in China.

3. Be conscientious and challenge the “why” behind your content

“I think brands often get in trouble with cultural appropriation in marketing when what they’re doing is solely for their own benefit. So if the ‘why’ behind a Tweet that uses cultural references is simply that you want to tap into a specific community for your metrics, you’ve got to reassess,” said Blackburn. “If the ‘why’ comes back to creating relationships, embracing a culture, building trust and giving back to those communities, it’s coming from a more authentic place and will likely be well-received.”

Historically, there have been plenty of brand faux-pas on Cinco De Mayo. But in 2020, Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods brand led by a white CEO, was able to recognize the holiday in a meaningful way. As the lead sponsor of Altalismo Live!, a virtual live festival, they brought together a collective of Latin performers to host and perform, with the goal of raising $3 million for the Farmworkers Pandemic Relief Fund.

Had the event been hosted by white artists, branded with stereotypical Latin American imagery or benefitted only P&G, the response would have been much different. But instead, P&G didn’t perpetuate stereotypes, they hired Latin American performers to run the show, they didn’t profit and the results were mutually beneficial for the brand and the culture that inspired the event.

4. Embrace education

“Always start from a place of empathy, learning and curiosity,” Blackburn suggests. “Whether you are developing content on behalf of your brand or you’re branding yourself at an individual level, it’s important to seek information to better educate ourselves about cultures and communities outside our own.”

Education can start with reading, following more activists on social and asking questions, not to validate assumptions but to understand the experiences of BIPOC and other members of underrepresented groups. The beauty of social media is that it facilitates dialogue about important issues and emerging trends.

When Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion coined “hot girl summer,” several brands were quick to cash in, using the phrase to market their products. Soon enough, social media users started to call out the brands that failed to give the rapper credit.

Had some of the brands leveraging the “hot girl summer” hype examined the trend through social media listening tools, they could have picked up on the fact that many social media users were objecting to brands using the phrase. They might have seen that Megan Thee Stallion was exploring trademarking the phrase. They could have found consumers’ suggestions to partner with the rapper. And with that, they might have decided to explore more successful approaches for their summer marketing campaigns.

5. If you are called out, pause and listen

“When brands get called out for appropriation or performative allyship, they often feel like they have to hurry up and address it. But I think that’s an opportunity to actually pump the brakes and really take the time to listen,” said Blackburn. “Then, in the future, when you’re working on a marketing campaign or brainstorming DEI content, you can apply what you’ve heard from the community themselves to determine the best course of action.”

In the past, Sephora, had been called out for their shelves lacking Black-owned brands. And celebrities like Lizzo and SZA publicly shared on social media that they experienced prejudicial treatment in a Sephora store. While the beauty retailer did respond to these complaints, they also listened and began making long-term plans to course correct.

From making the 15% Pledge and plans to double their assortment of Black-owned brands by the end of 2021, to sponsoring a 17-page study on racial bias in retail and new marketing production guidelines, Sephora continues to explore how they can foster inclusion and improve the retail experience for all.

Embrace the values you stand for

Above all else, stay grounded in what you and your brand stand for and let that lead your marketing decisions. “We can’t be everything to everyone, even though we might want to be. Marketers need to push to be clear about the things that align with your values, and let that be your space,” said Blackburn.

When you stay true to your values, there are more opportunities to build a deep understanding of the spaces you occupy and the audiences you cater to. Deepen that understanding even further by capturing Voice of the Customer data. Download this guide to making smarter business decisions using Voc.

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