H&M found itself in hot water on Sunday after an image on its website of a black child wearing a sweatshirt that read “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” prompted an Internet frenzy. Social media users took to Twitter and other platforms to express their outrage, accusing the image to be racist, insensitive and lacking social awareness.
On Monday, brand partner The Weeknd quickly cut ties with the retailer. The singer posted the now viral photo, writing: “Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with H&M anymore.” (The Weeknd has teamed up with H&M on multiple collections, including his fall line, which launched last September.)
H&M has since issued an apology, posting on its website, “Our position is simple and unequivocal — we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry…We agree with all the criticism that this has generated — we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists.” The image and product have been removed, and the latter is no longer available for purchase.
However, regardless of the the fast response, some experts say H&M is headed for more damage.
Hundreds of consumers have posted #BoycottHM on Twitter, for example, while major influencers such as NBA star Lebron James and music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs have voiced their criticism.
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@hm u got us all wrong! And we ain't going for it! Straight up! Enough about y'all and more of what I see when I look at this photo. I see a Young King!! The ruler of the world, an untouchable Force that can never be denied! We as African Americans will always have to break barriers, prove people wrong and work even harder to prove we belong but guess what, that's what we love because the benefits at the end of the road are so beautiful!! #LiveLaughLove❤️ #LoveMyPeople🤴🏾👸🏾👨🏾⚖️👩🏾⚖️
“Sorry is not enough in the eyes of consumers,” Keenan Beasley, co-founder of creative agency BLKBOX told Footwear News. “I would expect to see some levels of sales slide.”
He added, “H&M is not the first brand to do something that’s deemed as culturally insensitive, but because so much of this is happening and consumers are much more aware and now have platforms to share it at such a high volume, inevitably there will be backlash. H&M has damaged that relationship with their consumer base — particularly the minority community. They need to work hard on repairing that.”
And while the Swedish retailer explained this was purely an act in poor judgment, the oversight will likely garner negative consequences.
“We have known the H&M people for over a decade,” said Marc Beckman, founder of marketing agency DMA United. “I find it hard to believe that the organization did this with malicious intent, and there’s no way that these people are racist, but with that being said, this is a big problem. Perception is everything. Because I know the H&M executive management team doesn’t mean that the public does. All the public sees is the horrible post and The Weeknd walking, and that matters. The reality is that when someone as important and influential as The Weeknd makes a statement [like this], this hurts them. There’s no doubt in my mind [consumers] will walk away from the brand as well.”
Beckman said that it may take months for the retailer to bounce back from the crisis and that The Weeknd may be the first of several partners to jump ship. (Nicki Minaj has also worked with company on several occasions.) He added, “This is definitely not a simple oversight. Just because the intent wasn’t there [doesn’t mean they shouldn’t] be held accountable for being negligent.”
Now rapper G-Eazy has also ended his partnership with the company. He was set to launch a global campaign and collection in March. “Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign quickly evaporated, and I’ve decided at this time our partnership needs to end,” G-Eazy posted on Instagram. “I can’t allow for my name and brand to be associated with a company that could let this happen.”
From The Weeknd’s perspective, ending the relationship was the best thing to do, according to experts.
“If The Weeknd didn’t resign from the partnership, he would have been the one to receive more backlash than H&M,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of The NPD Group Inc., explained. “He would’ve been targeted as the one who was insensitive and out of touch with reality. The fact that he immediately stepped away from it, this feels like punishment has been delivered [to H&M].”
In spite of this adverse reaction from consumers, Cohen thinks the controversy will be short-lived. “We as consumers have a very short memory. Time is going be their best asset. And the mere fact that The Weeknd stepped away is what’s ironically going to help them in the long run,” he said.
Cohen did admit that there would be a dip in sales, most likely online.
So what does H&M do now?
Beckman predicts that the retailer will institute tactics that blend community-based initiatives and strategic alliances, and Cohen says he wouldn’t be surprised if apologetic merchandise hits the sales floor in the coming weeks.