How To Align Brands With The Codes Of Culture

Surprisingly, many global brands to stumble due to profound insensitivity to the cultural context.

Even though H&M apologized almost immediately for the enormous insensitivity pictured, the damage was done and a flurry of questions surfaced.

How do these cultural insensitivities get a green light? How are they skipped in the vetting process? Is it the complete disregard for the brand existing in a universal/global cultural context? Is it an organizational blindness that’s insensitive to cultural nuance? Is it faulty supply chain management? Is it a simple omission due to the sheer volume and speed of products and marketing materials being churned out on a daily basis as a sort of by-product of late capitalism?

It’s hard to imagine no one caught this when it’s so obvious to customers the moment it hits the real world. To make matters worse, it was easily preventable.

So what are the key learnings from this (yet another) cultural fail that could be generified and applied further on? Here are three for brands that come to mind first:

1. Context Overrides The Text (AKA product)

If one sentence defines advertising’s mantra, it’s this one: context is the message.

It seems fairly straightforward, but it’s not. Maybe for its eloquence. What it means is that the context in which you present your message or a product bears a much higher symbolic significance to the overall framing of your message or a product, that it will override the meaning of a message you intended to convey. Think of context as the ultimate ace – it ups the ante. The framing of your product becomes your message. Even if it’s not what you wanted to say.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental axioms of marketing semiotics is that the context overrides text and creates a new meaning. Context is not only the new product, it’s also the new brand. Therefore, the brand’s – even if unintentional – culturally insensitive framing of a product photo shoot is the wider message about H&M as a brand and its core values. Unfortunate, but true.

2. Meaning Is Malleable, But It Sticks

Meaning has this one unfavorable quality: It’s highly malleable, changing its nature based on a context, but once it’s connected to something tangible (through a shared network of mental associations), it tends to stick in people’s minds for a long time.

So if you create a meaning you don’t want to be associated with or that counters your brand values due to association with a context you didn’t intend to tap into, you can be sure that it will stay with people for some time. It takes a ferocious amount of consistency to counter that effect and restore a positive brand image. It works the same with people and countering a bad impression, really.

3. Brands Need To Be Responsible For The Meanings They Create

If you’re a brand, let alone a globally successful one, this is one of the most critical things you need to constantly carry in mind: think about what it means before you design it.

If the context is the message, it’s clear that you should be aware of the possible meanings you could create in the context of the world out there. As always, we should think about possible meanings and cultural implications before we design anything – a product, a of communication or a brand. Brands need to take on responsibility for their own creations, especially if they have a potential to disrupt the flow of culture and insult people and their historical, political or social experiences in our society – our shared collective memory.

As brands begin to join and profit from ongoing cultural conversations, they need to make sure their messaging goes with and not against culture as they’ll be the ones responsible for the consequences. Brands need to own the outcome of mining the cultural context for meaning. They need to be held accountable for the meanings they put out in the world. Being aware of and accountable for your meaning footprint should be one of the most fundamental pillars of the Corporate Social Responsibility.

If a high carbon footprint is bad for our environment, the toxic meaning footprint is bad for our minds, polluting our sense of self, our secure position in the world around us and is bad for our mental health. And of course, for the brand’s business.

Own your context. Own your life.


The fact that similar cultural fails and contextual lapses have been more frequent recently points to an important trend where there’s an increasing gap between how organizations operate and the context of the world and culture they operate in.

The context (be it cultural, physical, emotional or symbolic – metaphorical/associational) is what creates meaning, and therefore the value of products these organizations create. That’s why they can’t simply ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Brands don’t exist in a vacuum and if they do think and behave that way, the context will punish them in return. And rightfully so.

We need to become more aware of our own history and the nature of the society we live in as it influences everything we do and create retroactively.

Brands bear the same exact responsibilities towards society as people do. It’s actually even more important for brands to be socially responsible because cultural relevance is the core product of their business, especially in the case of fashion brands.

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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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