Cauliflowers, hoodies and the danger of group think


Two retail giants found themselves badly out of step with consumer and media sentiment this week prompting outraged headlines, rapid u-turns by both companies and considerable consternation as to how they managed to get it so wrong.

Swedish fashion retailer H&M was forced to apologise and pull a product listing on its UK website showing a young black boy dressed in a hoodie emblazoned with the legend “COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE”.

How could it be that nobody at H&M spotted what would clearly be read as a racist slur in their product ad?  

Meanwhile, M&S was forced to stop selling a “cauliflower steak” - two slices of cauliflower with a drizzle of oil cocooned in plastic – after facing both anger and ridicule over the cost (normal price £2.50) and the excessive packaging.

Why did nobody at M&S question whether selling a couple of slices of veg for the equivalent price per gram of prime sirloin beef might not be a good idea? Not to mention the wastefulness of all that packaging.

Did no-one there watch Blue Planet? Haven’t they clocked the Government’s Daily Mail fuelled campaign to cut down on plastic waste? 

Both stories broke first on social media and were quickly picked up and amplified by the media, by which time the damage was done.  H&M apologised and pulled both the picture and the product but it was too late to stop a backlash that saw rapper The Weeknd announcing he was scrapping his collaboration with the company.

Not that there hasn’t been considerable debate about it with some social media users weighing in to accuse those who found the image offensive of being over sensitive and even the boy’s mother, Terry Mango, taking to Facebook to accuse people of “crying wolf”. But none of that does anything for H&M’s image as the purveyor of safe, affordable fashion.

Meanwhile M&S, after initially defending its cauliflower steak as designed “for customers looking for a quick and convenient vegetarian meal”, also capitulated three days later and pulled the product.

Of course, M&S and other supermarkets have for years been making huge mark ups on “trendy prepared veg”, as the tabloids call it, and they are understandably keen to exploit the growing demand for vegetarian (and vegan) foods.

But the ground is shifting.

The focus on plastic waste - driven by newspaper campaigns and the powerful images of a dying whale in the BBC’s Blue Planet series - means that consumers who might not have questioned whether packaging was excessive as long as the product offered convenience, are now much more disposed to be critical.

There is also more focus on value for money as household incomes are squeezed. It was particularly unfortunate that the row blew up just days before M&S revealed a 0.4 per cent decline in food sales over the Christmas period amid signs of increasing nervousness among consumers.

M&S seems to have made the classic mistake of getting carried away by a market opportunity and not factoring in the other prevailing trends. Both companies have also fallen foul of the tendency in every organisation for group think and for failing to understand that every action by an employee carries some reputation risk.

It used to be a cliché within the civil service that in the drawing up of any new policy or launching any new initiative officials needed to ask the question: “how would this look in the Daily Mail?”.

Todays’ equivalent might be Buzzfeed (though the Mail is still a force to be reckoned with) but the question is still as relevant as ever.

It’s about trying to think outside the bubble and consider how it looks from the outside. PR departments can’t be expected to vet every single product listing but they can try to get across the message that every employee is the guardian of their company’s reputation and will suffer the consequences if it gets damaged.