H&M, the Swedish fashion retailer, have certainly made an inauspicious entry into the South African market. In fact it is hard to imagine how they could have messed things up more than they have in making their splash! Firstly they launch their brand using images that have no bearing on their new market and secondly, defend their error on social media that has them being labelled as ‘racist’ – an especially loaded change in this particular context.
H&MIt is hard to understand what those tasked with the entry into the South African market were thinking. Perhaps that is the point, they simply weren’t thinking. They took what they knew worked (in a very different context) and thought they could ‘plug and play’ when rolling out their brand in South Africa. It is a bewildering oversight from a global brand, one that has launched in China, and yet it typifies an ignorance and perhaps arrogance that many western companies make when entering both unfamiliar and emerging markets.
The oversight is one of failing to understand the importance of context. It is one of assuming that ‘our way’ is best and that if it “works for us, it will work for you”. It comes from a worldview that says, “we are the centre” and as a result there is no need to adjust, translate or adapt.
It is hard to understand and even harder to know how a global brand like H&M can be guilty of such oversight. Of course lessons will be learnt and corrections made but at what cost?
The reality is that we can all be guilty of such oversights and these oversights might occur at multiple levels – in our thinking as corporates, as individuals and as groupings – be that ethnic, cultural or professional. Using the term ‘oversights’ is being kind as perhaps ‘arrogance’ is a more accurate assessment of what is really going on. It is an all too common mistake when the ‘developed’ reaches out to the ‘developing’; when the ‘have’s’ reach out to the ‘have not’s – when the transaction crosses perceived boundaries of wealth, status or privilege.
H&M have made a significant blunder, one that is systematic of a far deeper concern over mind-set and attitude. But, before we shout too loudly, best we look at ourselves and ensure that when it comes to ‘others’, we don’t make the same mistake. There are important lessons to be learnt here – best we learn them and for H&M, best they learn them quickly.

TomorrowToday Global