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H&M’s monkey sweatshirt apology is predictable

The internet is abuzz with news about international mega-retailer H&M featuring a product photo of a black child modeling a ‘coolest monkey in the jungle” sweater. The company’s response: “This image has now been removed from all H&M channels and we apologise to anyone this may have offended.”

“May have offended” speaks volumes. Is H&M unapologetic for its own actions? Are they subtly saying, “To everyone else who wasn’t offended: Thanks for shopping at H&M”?

With the ever-increasing consumer conquest for brand consistency and accountability, companies such as H&M do themselves a disservice when they don’t adequately respond to issues surrounding racism, sexism, ageism, and other social issues that have come into the forefront of consumer culture.

The challenge for H&M is achieving authenticity in an age of overnight brand loyalty and rapid revolt. Millennials, especially, are brand loyalists; they use their purchasing power when it aligns most with their own personal brands and values because their own personal brand may have a perceived linkage to a company’s brand. You can bet that H&M just lost a significant chunk of previously loyal customers.

What’s more is that H&M’s tone-deaf apology should not have been made at the spokesperson level, but from all the way at the top, coupled with immediate action items. This signals to consumers that the issue has become a priority for the company, and that it (hopefully) will not ever happen again.

The photo, now removed from a product gallery on the company’s UK website, is not the company’s first time bumping into issues with diversity and cultural insensitivity.

In 2015, H&M South Africa responded to a customer’s tweet about its lack of ethnic diversity in their advertising by saying, “We want our marketing to show our fashion in an inspiring way, to convey a positive feeling.”

Social media lit up, and negative headlines ensued. Ultimately, an official response was made:

Breaking down the language from 2015, you can see that H&M avoids apologizing for its actions, but instead wishes to apologize to those who were offended—the same as today’s apology.

What’s obvious, in both 2015 and today’s apology, is that H&M doesn’t seem to take these kinds of corporate crises seriously simply because they may think they don’t have to (according to their 2016 Annual Report, the company is raking in more than $21 billion in annual revenue).

As of this posting, H&M Group or H&M United Kingdom have not published any kind of apology to their website, nor have they issued a tweet like they did in 2015. It’s possible, but not probable, that this was a controlled crisis—a thinly veiled publicity stunt to boost Q1 sales—but it seems that H&M hasn’t learned from its past mistake.

A brand boycott has already begun, and, believe it or not, the “monkey” sweater is still available for purchase.

The year 2018 is very different from 2015 in that consumers are far more aligned with values-based corporations. Will H&M suffer this time, or at the very least issue a more heartfelt mea culpa? Only time will tell.

Jonathan Amar is a director in LEVICK’s Corporate Practice Group.

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