Eff deputy president Floyd Shivambu, who has called on Clicks to identify the people behind a racist advertising campaign, speaks outside a Clicks store at Sandton City in Johannesburg on September 7 2020. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Eff deputy president Floyd Shivambu, who has called on Clicks to identify the people behind a racist advertising campaign, speaks outside a Clicks store at Sandton City in Johannesburg on September 7 2020. Picture: THULANI MBELE

The potential strength of consumer activism spoke loud and clear in the 6% drop in the Clicks share price in the wake of the insulting hair products advert it posted on its website last week.

It sends a clear message to corporations: sensitivity to your customers is key to your reputation, which is key to your sustainability. 

Clicks evoked widespread fury by showing an advertisement on its website for TRESemmé hair products, with pictures that described the hair of a black model as “dry and damaged” and “frizzy and dull”, contrasting with blonde Caucasian hair that was “fine and flat” and “normal”.

Clicks is not the first or only consumer brand culprit to violate the dignity of its black customers, but it should have learnt from previous debacles.

In October 2017 Dove, manufacturer of personal care products, also aroused social media outrage when it flighted an advert showing a black woman turning white after using its soap. In early 2018, Swedish clothing retailer H&M caused an outcry with a photograph of a black child modelling a hoodie with the logo “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Soon afterwards, luxury brand Gucci had to apologise after an advert showed a woman wearing a black polo neck/balaclava combo with a cut-out of red lips, which was labelled “blackface”.

One commentator told Gucci: “If you hire more black people and cultivate an environment where people on all levels of the company feel comfortable to speak up, incidents like this will be avoided.”

Clicks Group CEO Vikesh Ramsunder has made an abject apology, acknowledging the images were “insensitive and offensive”. He says the negligent employees have been suspended and the group will be intensifying its diversity and inclusion training. However, the EFF says it intends continuing its demonstrations against Clicks stores this week.

Though I do not condone the EFF’s approach, I have little sympathy for Clicks or TRESemmé (who supplied the images). Had they ensured that the staff responsible for advertising — whether agency or in-house — was racially diversified, they would never have come up with those labels.

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Members of the EFF, led by deputy president Floyd Shivambu, protested outside the Clicks retail store in Sandton City as part of a nationwide protest on September 7 2020. This comes after the retail group released a TRESemmé advert on its website that has been condemned by the EFF as racist. Meanwhile, police are investigating several incidents across the country where stores were vandalised.

All too often, advertising agencies are more concerned with ensuring pictures and taglines are attention-grabbing and fail to see the message behind those images. They are influential. Many consumers can remember a punchy tagline or meme, even after the name of the product is forgotten.

Suspending or sacking an agency, or a couple of junior employees, is not the solution. Accountability goes all the way to the top. Diversity training is important, but it must be done properly. According to a Harvard Business Review article in July-August 2016, “people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance — and many participants actually report more animosity towards other groups afterward”.

Clicks needs to adopt a combination of solutions, one of which is to revisit the seven pillars of reputation management. These are based on four emotional indicators: trust, appreciation, admiration and good feelings. Measuring a company’s reputation is based on surveying respondents’ emotional reaction to the company’s products, innovation, workplace, governance, citizenship, leadership and performance.

Unfortunately, reputation management is now too often associated with employing a “spin doctor” to help a company get through a crisis. Effective reputation management is a long-term game, perhaps executives would pay more attention to it if they incorporated it (with real sincerity) into their broader risk strategy.

In another Harvard Business Review article, in February 2007, on “Reputation and its Risk”, the authors argued that executives’ responsibility to protect the company’s reputation is as important as ensuring operational performance is optimal, since both drive shareholder value.

Clicks’ share price fall bears that out. And though the shares are already starting to bounce back, in the longer term they may fail to keep up with their peers in the retail sector if sales suffer as a result of consumer boycotts or influential fund managers believe the company is not fully committed to good reputation management.

The Harvard Business Review recommends that reputation be measured in ways that are contextual, objective and preferably quantitative, and this can be done both through customer surveys and through the media. Analysing media coverage has moved beyond the basic tool of using a clipping service. There are more sophisticated media intelligence tools available today.

Then that intelligence needs to become the basis of a more effective investor and corporate relations strategy, which should be overseen by a senior executive with an objective outlook and access to resources who can co-ordinate action across all departments. The head of marketing does not have those powers.

“Senior executives tend to be optimists and cheerleaders. Their natural inclination is to believe the praise heaped on their companies and to discount the criticism. But looking at the world and one’s organisation through rose-tinted glasses is an abdication of responsibility,” HBR says.

Sustainability is not a new concept. For a decade or more corporations have trumpeted their commitment to protect the environment, ensure the wellbeing of their communities and adhere to the highest standards of corporate morality. So it is extraordinary that they are still guilty of offending their core customers through careless actions that may reverberate for years.

• Johnston is founder of Lunice Johnston Communications.

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