Why brands need to appreciate, not appropriate

"It's the role of creatives to soak up culture, and people have always borrowed from other cultures."

These days, it seems like brands are constantly called out for cultural appropriation. Over the past few weeks alone, Kim Kardashian West has been accused of appropriating Japanese culture for naming her shapewear brand "Kimono," while Carolina Herrera drew the ire of the Mexican government when she used indigenous Mexican patterns in her Resort 2020 collection. 

Appropriation is essentially taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission. It can feel like a grey area, especially when an obvious direct owner isn’t apparent. You can appropriate from a person, a community, a culture, a country or even a concept. The key is whether your brand actions cause offense or disrespect. For example, Nike’s use of a pink triangle on sneakers released for Pride month is an example of negative cultural appropriation, while its well-received "Pro Hijab" product is an example of appreciation. 

Many of these errors are obvious and highlight the tone-deaf approach that brands and agencies take to certain cultures. It’s the role of creatives to soak up culture, and people have always borrowed from other cultures. The key is to give credit to the culture that inspired the work, and also use it as a chance to empower the source.

In today’s climate, chances are that someone is nearly always going to be offended by work. But it’s our job as creatives to make sure that we take as many steps as possible to appreciate, rather than appropriate, culture. Here’s how. 

1.    Before you launch a product or campaign that borrows from a particular culture, speak to people who are from that culture. Learn the parameters and context for how it should be used. Don’t rely on a singular voice, as different people may have different perspectives. 

2.    If you want to use language that is from another country or culture, find out how it’s typically used. I find it’s best to avoid anything with ties to religion, politics, or community-wide moments of trauma or celebration. Find out if the word or phrase has any cultural value, or if it’s purely descriptive. Talk to native speakers to find out if there is any slang associated with the term that you might not know about.

3.    Hire from within that culture, and make sure that person or team of people have a hand in everything from strategy and design to content creation and casting. 

4.   Explore relevant organizations within the community, culture or concept and find out how your work can empower them. Empowering a community to achieve its own goals it the most direct way to show appreciation and support. Teaming up with organizations with a focus on job creation/economic growth or cultural heritage support and protection can provide a clear link between the creative work and a cultural benefit.

5.    If you’re a brand owner, hire agencies that aren’t echo chambers. They should have a proven track record of understanding plurality of opinion, diversity and inclusion.

6.    When you launch the creative work, place the community and the empowerment front and center. This way, it’s hard to take your messaging out of context. Lead with the empowering messaging on social media and in PR credits, and bring the relevant creative talent to the forefront.

7.    If a mistake is made, engage and make amends. Be honest and open, and ask how you can make it right. Then act on it.

Seeing a unique culture re-imagined in a public spotlight is exciting, and brands can have a huge role in how we all appreciate and empower diverse communities. The key is to be respectful and establish a strong world view. With that, your brand can be truly engaging and inspiring. 

Rana Reeves is the founder of RanaVerse.

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