Of course, marketers seek creative inspiration from a range of trends, cultural moments, and media. And in our digitally connected world, we can experience different cultures, customs and communities without having to look up from our phones.
As a result, marketers have plenty of opportunities to create culturally relevant content and capitalize on rising social trends. However, when marketers use elements of a culture without their brand gaining credibility in that community first, 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 adoption of creative or artistic forms, themes or practices by a cultural group” without recognizing their origin, meaning and true value.
Native American headdresses at Fashion Week, box braids on white women, and whitewashed mahjong tiles are more blatant examples of cultural appropriation. More nuanced examples come from marketers abusing and misunderstanding memes, GIFs, slang, and other language options. For example, words like “periodt”, “sis” and “woke” come from African American English Vernacular (AAVE). “Throwing shadows” is rooted in the drag & ball culture. “Spirit animals” and “tribes” are uniquely associated with Native American culture and spiritualism. And yet we often see these terms on marketing content and branded products without their origin being recognized or sensitized.
Hey non-blacks, especially whites. I have a great new lightning bolt. AAVE is NOT a stan / internet / meme language that you will be using. IT. of us blacks on the internet. I can’t even count how many memes and slang came from Black Twitter / Internet that were quickly stolen.
– “Sailor Scout Austin” (black all year round) (@sailorsctaustin) July 31, 2020
If a brand is actually owned by Black, LGBTQIA +, or Native, or is very closely related to these diverse audiences, these terms can be a relevant and authentic part of their brand voice. However, it becomes a problem when brands or marketers who are not considered part of the community try to take advantage of it with no credibility and no added value.
In recent years, cultural appropriation in marketing has been increased (and often induced by social media) through social media.
“Social media can introduce us to new communities and trends. At the same time, social media exposes the actions, tendencies and behaviors of others in both negative and positive ways, ”said Cassandra Blackburn, director of DEI at Sprout Social. “And when you add the level of cultural appropriation, people call out anyone who uses culture in an abusive or manipulative way.”
5 tips for creating culturally relevant content while avoiding appropriation
Brand marketers have a responsibility to use distinction and create relevant content without taking advantage of it.
“It’s important to take into account the different experiences, stories and values that are at play for our brand, our customers and the culture at large. By taking these factors into account, we can get closer to what people really want from our brand. And ultimately, if we don’t reflect our values and lead authentically in our messages, we’ll miss the mark, ”said Blackburn.
At the end of the day, there is a fine line between humanizing a brand and doing too much.
Sometimes you need to put your ego and “great tweet idea” aside and focus on what really matters.
be authentic. pic.twitter.com/3oaHLBbir8
– Jayde me. Powell (@ Jaydeipowell) January 3, 2021
Blackburn suggests these tips to help create more engaging, culturally relevant content while avoiding appropriation.
1. Engage in cultural investments all year round
During Black History Month, LGBTQIA + Pride Month, and other annual cultural observations, we keep seeing brands celebrate but get shouted for not supporting these communities year round. Before Blackburn acknowledges these types of social holidays, he urges brands to look inside.
I believe BLM (and all similar expressions) are in a wave of commercialization and commercialization by corporations and influential brands. just like they did Pride Month. Something about it doesn’t pass the sniff test for me.
– see (@culta_klash) June 5, 2020
“The brand and the company itself have to commit internally and do the hard work before doing the work externally. In the midst of everything we saw in 2020, brands put out beautiful, colorful statements, campaigns and the like. But what do you hear now? Are you keeping your 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 that matter to them. They made it part of their brand’s fabric and it’s reflected in their social content.
2. Bring different people and perspectives into the content creation process
If you want to diversify your content, it is important to involve experts in these areas. “Brands cannot afford to make decisions in a silo. Not only should companies have different perspectives internally, but it’s also important that they diversify the experts, developers, consultants and community members they work with, ”said Blackburn.
When you invite people and perspectives from a particular culture into the creative process to understand how to celebrate that culture, you are on the side of appreciation rather than appropriation.
The Chinese New Year doesn’t seem like an opportunity for a marketing campaign for Belgian luxury brand Maison Margiela. However, by partnering with a local Chinese artist, they managed to create a beautiful, culturally relevant campaign that respectfully pays homage to an ancient Chinese painting, Ten Bulls, and allusions to the Year of the Ox. Additionally, they chose Weibo and WeChat as platforms for the campaign and recognized their status as the largest social platforms in China.
3. Be conscientious and challenge the “why” behind your content
“I think brands often have cultural appropriation problems in marketing when what they’re doing is for their own benefit. If the “why” behind a tweet that uses cultural references is simply that you want to target a particular community to your metrics, you need to reevaluate, ”said Blackburn. “When the ‘why’ returns to building relationships, embracing a culture, building trust, and giving back to those communities, it is coming from a more authentic place and is likely to be well received.”
Historically, Cinco De Mayo has had a lot of brand faux pas. In 2020, Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods brand led by a white CEO, saw the vacation in a meaningful way. As the main sponsor of Altalismo Live !, a live virtual festival, they brought together a collective of Latin American artists to raise $ 3 million for the Farmworkers Pandemic Relief Fund.
Had the event been hosted by white artists branded with stereotypical Latin American imagery or just benefiting P&G, the response would have been very different. Instead, P&G didn’t uphold stereotypes, they hired Latin American artists to run the show, they didn’t benefit, and the results were mutually beneficial to the brand and culture that inspired the event.
4th Embrace education
“Always start in a place of empathy, learning, and curiosity,” suggests Blackburn. “Whether you are creating content for your brand or branding yourself on an individual level, it is important to seek information to better inform us about cultures and communities outside of our own.”
It is so nice when people in different cultures continue their education without any intentions or appropriation measures. Just for the fun of learning and understanding.
– ????????????????????????????⁷ | ???????????????????? (@ tomb0y_in_lace) February 13, 2021
Education can start with reading, follow more activists on social issues, and ask questions not to validate assumptions but to understand the experiences of BIPOC and other members of underrepresented groups. The nice thing about social media is that it makes it easier to dialogue about important topics and emerging trends.
When Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion coined the “Hot Girl Summer”, several brands were able to make quick money to market their products. Before long, social media users were calling out the brands that did the rapper no credit.
Had some of the brands taking advantage of the “hot girls summer” hype had used social media listening tools to research the trend, they could have picked up on the fact that many social media users were protesting against brands that were used this expression. You might have seen Megan Thee Stallion investigate the set’s trademark. You could have found consumer suggestions to work with the rapper. And with that, they may have decided to explore more successful approaches to their summer marketing campaigns.
I’ve seen a couple of beauty brands just starting to rock with black guys after Fenty Beauty pointed to “Hot Girl Summer” alone today. Are you going to work with Meg now or not?
– Blocka Khan (@Starr_Rocque) July 11, 2019
5. When someone calls you, stop and listen
“When brands are called for appropriation or performative ally, they often feel that they have to hurry and take care of it. But I think this is an opportunity to put the brakes on and really take the time to listen, ”said Blackburn. “As you work on a marketing campaign or develop DEI content in the future, you can apply what you’ve heard from the community yourself to determine the best course of action.”
In the past, Sephora had been called black-owned because of its unbranded shelves. And celebrities like Lizzo and SZA publicly shared on social media that they were treated negatively in a Sephora store. As the beauty retailer responded to these complaints, they also listened and began making long-term plans to correct course.
From pledging a 15% commitment and plans to double the assortment of black-owned brands by the end of 2021, to sponsoring a 17-page study of racial bias in retail and new guidelines for marketing production, Sephora continues to explore how they are promoting inclusion promote and improve the retail experience for everyone.
Embrace the values you stand for
Most importantly, stay anchored in what you and your brand stand for and let that guide your marketing decisions. “We cannot be everything for everyone, even if we may want to. Marketers need to push to get clear about the things that align with your values and make that your place, ”Blackburn said.
If you stay true to your values, there are more opportunities to build a deep understanding of the spaces you occupy and the audiences you serve. Take that understanding even further by capturing the Voice of the Customer data. Download this guide to help you make smarter business decisions with Voc.