The Nivea Ad or 'The Rise and Fall of Cultural Differences in Advertising'

In advertising, companies are obviously wholly responsible for everything that emanates from them  - their products, their customer support experience, to some degree their retail context, and of course their advertising.  Since every consumer touch point is both precious and contributes to the over-all brand experience, marketers must be sure that each interaction is as strategic as possible.  Not only should every advertising dollar be positioned to create the greatest economic benefit, companies and brands are - one way or the other - held accountable for every nuance and subtlety of each interaction - whether intended or not.  


The good news is that if you truly understand your consumer and you interact with them in ways that meet their physical and emotional needs, then like many great brands, you are handsomely rewarded with your consumers' loyal patronage.  The down side, beyond merely wasting marketing dollars, is that if you do something to offend consumers, you can not just lose them, but also create people who are passionately against your brand and who will enthusiastically share their opinions to anyone within "earshot".  


This Nivea print ad that has exploded onto the social media scene within the last 24 hours is a perfect example of both the power of advertising, and the ability of social media to either work for you or against you.  I have no doubt that the Nivea "brand managers" and ad agency had no malicious intent in creating this ad.  Certainly it is hard to fathom any upside for them in pissing off millions of actual and potential consumers with something racially offensive.  Nevertheless, as you may have read, the internet is bustling with posts and conversation about what many believe is an "unapologetically racist ad".


I applaud the folks at Nivea for choosing to include an African American in their campaign.  Lord knows many in the general market health/beauty/cosmetics world don't.  But, I think this ad shows that good intentions, unfortunately, aren't always enough when reaching out to consumers who you may not be familiar with.  I don't blame the Nivea team for not being intimate with cultural sensitivities outside of their experience.  I do blame them, however, for not reaching out to appropriate creative and strategic resources who are familiar with those details to help them in this effort.  


I think many brands get in trouble when they, however subtly or innocently, operate as if African Americans are simply white folks in black skin.  Sure, African Americans live within the broader general market - and while there may even be considerable cultural overlap in this country - there are some profound differences that marketers must understand and account for.   


Nivea marketers should have understood that there is a long and painful history of African Americans feeling that their identity has been under attack.  In particular in the health and beauty segment, African Americans have struggled by the pervasiveness of American images of beauty that traditionally have not included people who look like them. This ad, inferring that longer, natural hair is uncivilized, needlessly and flagrantly clangs on this very sensitive chord.  The fact that, as I understand it, the reference to the "civilizing" effect of Nivea is only used in the ad with the African American model is further troubling. Another ad in this campaign, with a general market model, simply makes the case that Nivea makes you look better.  Indeed, the choice of words on this specific ad - while perhaps innocent (who knows) - is even further  . . . perplexing.


The bottom line for me, even beyond this particular unfortunate ad, is that marketers must work diligently and consistently to learn as much as they can about their consumers.  Understanding how they think, what's important to them, and how their product and brand are a part of their lives are but the basics.  The offensiveness of this ad is rather obvious.  The rate at which conversation about this issue is exploding on social media sites reflects this.  If a company believes that it makes economic sense to market to specific consumer sub-groups, why not do what it takes to increase the probability of successfully interacting with them?  At the very least why not acquire the skills and insight to craft the most strategic and culturally effective message?  


In pulling the ad, Nivea's parent, Beiersdorf AG, issued the following statement, in part:


“Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of NIVEA: The brand represents diversity, tolerance, and equal opportunity. We value difference. Direct or indirect discrimination must be ruled out in all decisions by, and in all areas of our activities. This applies regardless of gender, age, race, skin color, religion, ideology, sexual orientation, or disability. Nor should cultural, ethnic, or national origin, and political or philosophical conviction be of any significance.”


While the gist of the statement is directionally right, the last sentence could be part of the problem.  In general, ethnic minorities are not looking for their differences to be ignored, just that they not be the source of discrimination.  Brands must account for ethnic differences to be able to speak most intimately and appropriately to them.  In other words, to maximize the economic impact of your marketing efforts (i.e. to make the most money), you've got to skillfully and sensitively understand what makes your consumers unique and how to talk to them in their language.  It sounds obvious, yet examples like this Nivea ad prove that this isn't always top of mind.  Color-blind approaches are what lead to gaffes such as this one.  Let's hope this is a 'teachable moment' for the folks at Nivea and for marketers everywhere.



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Tags: advertising, african, africanamerican, american, culture, multicultural, nivea


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