H&M is one of the most well-known brands in the world, with global brand consultancy Interbrand ranking it the 23rd best known company worldwide in 2017.
They do business “The H&M Way”, and this is their brand commitment and promise:
We are a value-driven, customer-focused, creative and responsible fashion company. Fashion, team spirit and constant improvements are essential to us. When we do business “The H&M Way” we do so ethically, honestly and responsibly. We continually encourage our suppliers and other business partners to do the same.
And then this happened last week: Its online catalogue featured an advertisement of a young black boy sporting a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” written on it.
A barrage of comments ensued, with celebs from Questlove and Snoop Dogg to LeBron James and Diddy vociferously objecting to the racially insensitive ad via Twitter and Instagram.
The company tried to quash the criticism by apologising and issuing a public apology: “We have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry. As a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities – and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time”. But the damage has been been done.
A number of H&M stores in South Africa were ransacked over the weekend, and have been temporarily closed. And H&M has lost two high-profile celebrity endorsers (thus far). Announcing his shock and embarrassment, The Weeknd —a previous collaborator on two collections for the clothing chain —tweeted that he would not work with H&M anymore. In advance of the March 1 launch of his own H&M collection, rapper G-Eazy terminated his agreement. Here in Australia I know of many folk who are swearing they will never shop at a H&M store ever again.
Meanwhile, Lisa Magnusson, editorialist at Swedish paper of reference Dagens Nyheter, played down the scandal, saying the real scandal is that the sweater is so cheap (at Pounds 7.99). He says people should be more upset about the working conditions of the labourers in Asia who make H&M clothes for pennies.
A brand promise is a promise made and a promise kept. I hope that H&M intends to and can and will keep all of its promises in future – ethically, honestly, and responsibly.