NOMPU SIZIBA: Following the posting of a TRESemmé online ad – which had negative connotations about black hair as opposed to white hair – on health and beauty retailer Clicks’ website, there was social media outrage, as the ad reminded people that, for the longest time, blackness has been viewed as unattractive while whiteness the opposite.
In protest, the EFF has said that it would make sure that the retailer is unable to operate for the rest of the week. And, on top of that, a High Court decision threw out Clicks move to stop the EFF from intimidating its workers and customers from going into their shops.
Clicks CEO Vikesh Ramsunder has put out a statement of disappointment and regret about the ad having gone out in the first place. The situation as it stands is a mess. How could it have been prevented, and what can be learned from this episode?
Well, to discuss the matter further I’m joined on the line by Andy Rice. He’s a brand expert. Thanks very much for joining us, Andy. In a very racially sensitive context like South Africa, given its history, do we understand how Clicks messed up, even though we understand that they were not the authors of the ad. But still, it was on their platform?
ANDY RICE: Yes, I think it’s quite simple, really. I think they just are ignorant of the subtleties and nuances in that same society you’re talking about. I can’t believe that this would have gone through the normal checks and balances. I’d be very surprised if there is an advertising agency involved. It does sound from the correspondence like it was essentially an in-house position taken by someone who clearly wasn’t familiar with the importance of adherence to reasonable social norms.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So, Andy, in designing a marketing campaign, there must be so many variables that need to be taken into consideration, even though the ultimate goal is to get the product that you’re marketing sold. So what are those key variables, would you say? And presumably context matters.
ANDY RICE: Well, one of the key variables in any brand strategy space is consistency. And most brand managers will tell you one of the things they pursue is to make sure that the messaging that goes out for their brand has all passed the consistent, focused, single-minded strategy. In that way you build a strong brand which, in the event that you do make – or anybody makes – a colossal blunder like this, the strength of the brand is there to help appease the anger and remind everybody that it remains a brand, so has merit.
Now, the strength of a brand like Clicks is probably pretty consistent; I haven’t got any figures or data to prove that. But you’ll recall that Dis-Chem, their principal competitor, made some blunders only a few months ago with a pricing model for Covid health equipment and masks.
And you know, even on a bigger scale, if you take what was probably – most people would agree – one of biggest frauds ever in the brand-marketing world, was the so-called “diesel gate”, where Volkswagen systematically, over a number of years, was falsifying the performance figures for its engines. Then you say, okay, fine, draw a line in the sand there. Look forward a few years, and you find that last year, for instance, what was the best-selling vehicle in the world by numbers? It was Volkswagen. So people have short memories and to some extent a degree of forgiveness, depending on what the situation is.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Clicks CEO Vikesh Ramsunder stated earlier today that the incident had highlighted the need to audit all third-party and Clicks own promotional material. I mean, should that not be a standard procedure, anyway? After all, it is all about interpretation and ultimately reputation.
ANDY RICE: Absolutely, Nompu. I think he was really sort of stating the obvious there, but it also shows it’s not just a matter of checking the material. It makes it quite likely that his staff had insufficient understanding of the cultural environment in their marketing. It’s often said that a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world, and I think that applies here. I would suspect that a lot of relatively desk-bound people may or may not have signed this off. I think it’s astonishing that anybody, whether they’re in marketing or not, would fail to see the trouble ahead. But that’s the way of these things, and one of the aspects that’s so-called democratisation of the media.
But the introduction of social media and commercial online media empowers anyone, almost, to become a journalist, if you like, on a particular issue, because the barriers to entry to getting your opinion across are suddenly much reduced. And I think that that sort of environment requires CEOs of companies like Clicks to say: “We can’t just hope that everything will go well, and write a couple of marketing strategies to see what happens. We have to make sure that all of our staff, at every level, are completely understanding of the value of the correct values that a brand like Clicks expects.”
NOMPU SIZIBA: You talk about staff. They’re a key ingredient in the messaging of a company. What sort of staff do you need to have? Of course, you’ll need somebody who understands the product per stock exchange. But, as you market, with all the connotations around that product and how you’re communicating it, you’ll need people who may be, I don’t know, socially more astute in order to be able to say, well, this is going to work or not work.
ANDY RICE: I would agree with you, other than to say, you need everybody to be culturally astute. The days of brands being managed only by people in marketing, people who have the word “brand” on their business card are over. The reality is that we are all in marketing. McDonald’s, the fast-food brand, has a mantra that says “Marketing is everything, and everything is marketing”. That’s very simple. In six words it kind of captures the whole subclass you have to adhere to. You can’t allow alien cultures, if you like – it sounds certainly medicinal – but you can’t allow them to take root. You have to make sure everybody knows, when you get to a crossroads, when Clicks reaches one way and their competitors another, they must know which way to go.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Unfortunately for Clicks, it wasn’t enough just to apologise for the oversight. And they’re now trying to recover their reputation among those whom they’ve offended with the CEO stating that he was disappointed about the ad having gone out in the first place.
If you had a client in this position in the South African context, how would you advise that they deal with the situation in terms of their communication going forward, especially as they deal with the active activism of the EFF?
ANDY RICE: Yes. I’m not going to get involved in the politics of this situation. But I think from the CEO’s point of view there are kind of pre-website and post-website issues. It should never have allowed it to get onto the website in the first place. So that’s rule number one. And the CEO should ask him- or herself, whether they had sufficient controls and barriers in place to stop that happening again.
But what the CEO of Clicks is doing correctly is, he’s taking fast and visible action. What he can’t do is just duck down without a parapet, and just say, well, if we wait long enough it’ll blow away. It probably will, but it’ll blow away with more damage than if you stand up, saying, “Mea culpa, I’m sorry, we were wrong. Our systems let us down. It’s been culturally insensitive and disrespectful. We can’t understand how it happened, but we will make sure it doesn’t happen again.” If you have that kind of complete transparency and availability to the media from the management of the company, then that goes a long way to accelerating the elimination of ongoing anger.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Andy, a number of corporates before TRESemmé and Clicks have been called out for their racial representation faux pas in the past. You’ll remember the H&M issue a few years ago.
But, beyond South Africa, and looking more globally around how corporates project and communicate with their potential customers– especially in the era where the Black Lives Matter movement has managed to remain current for more than just a couple of months – when they go back to the drawing board, what must they do to improve that communication? Look, people will always be offended by one thing or another, but what needs to be there as a standard to try and avoid these unnecessary emotional impacts?
ANDY RICE: Yes, you’re absolutely right, because what we’re talking about are human values. They are not South African values only. The ability to insult and offend is a human weakness, and not a national one. And so, the first thing to do is to understand what lessons can be learnt, both from those brands in your own market that seem to have got it right, and from brands elsewhere. One is immediately drawn to a brand like Nike in America, which has been leading the Black Lives Matter debate from a brand point of view, and has really demonstrated an understanding of what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was brand expert Andy Rice. And still with the Clicks subject, earlier my colleague, Ryk van Niekerk, caught up with the CEO, Vikash Ramsunder.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Vikesh, how did this happen?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: Ryk, normally what we do is we put media on the Clicks website that we receive from various suppliers, and so forth. And TRESemmé has a landing page on our website and it provided the material. What we didn’t do is give proper oversight of that material, and we loaded it onto Clicks website.
I’m so disappointed and devastated by this, to be honest with you. We should have known better. I looked at it for two seconds and I could see that it was offensive. I just could not get my mind around why our digital marketing team didn’t pick that up.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: You have suspended some employees. You have also issued an apology. Do you think you have reacted appropriately?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: Certainly, I think, at the moment. I do think at the moment I’ve responded appropriately. We will certainly look at what we can do into the future. But I think it’s very important. We have hurt a large population in South Africa of black customers with this insensitive and offensive material. So an apology is very important.
But we’ve done a few other things. We’ve had to go and look at our processes to see how this happened. If we spend so much time reviewing our internal material that we develop, yet a supplier’s material can just easily be posted onto our website, that we deeply regret. So the processes there are being updated.
We are also auditing an enormous amount of fair-pricing material that we have in our business, to make sure there’s no implicit or explicit bias around this. I spent the weekend trying to understand what’s happened here, why didn’t we pick this up, and so on. It’s obvious to me that with 15 000 employees there may be conscious bias, unconscious bias, and an enormous amount of work from my side has to be done in terms of head-office training to sensitise our employees around the impact that images can have on people.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Vikesh, you sit with a situation where somebody in your organisation made a mistake, a very serious mistake. And it seems as if it’s been perceived by many people as a symptom of a systemic culture problem within Clicks, How do you respond to this?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: I certainly don’t believe that. In any organisation you have a mix of people. Well, on Thursday I thought we had done great, if you consider the way we’ve taken care of our people; 83% or more of our staff are black, 60% of our board is black. We are quite a diverse company, and what this incident has shown me is that there’s just so much more work to do in this area, and that can be [something] particularly for me to focus on moving forward.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: The EFF became involved. As I’ve said, it politicised the whole issue. What do you think of the EFF’s response?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: Obviously it’s a political party. It took a stance on this. It’s enshrined in the law that if you’re unhappy you can protest. But people damaging our stores and hurting customers can’t be acceptable, you can’t be tolerant of that. Democracy, the rule of law in this country is extremely important. And I can understand the pain of the people in South Africa, and I have gone with an apology. There’s nothing I can now do to remove that. What I can do is focus on how I fix this in the organisation moving forward. But I certainly do not condone in any way the violence and the unrest that has happened in our stores today [ ].
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Were any of your customers or staff injured?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: A few customers that I’m aware of. I think there’s were about two customers, and not necessarily any of our staff. And this was as they were trying to exit our stores with the disruption. So it was really unsavoury. I’ve tried on a few occasion to engage with the EFF, because we certainly want an amicable solution to this, and I’m hoping we can at least get a way to engage, because what’s happening at the moment is just not acceptable
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Have you managed to speak to Julius Malema?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: No, I haven’t.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: And have you engaged other organisations?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: This is not a political issue for me, and that’s an important point. This is about me ensuring that my people are safe and I’m talking to the society and the citizens of the country. So this is not about working with political parties or anything like that, it’s about righting what we’ve done wrong, and that’s been my key focus.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: The brand damage could be immense. As you alluded to earlier, you may lose even customers because people are hurt by the advertisement. How do you mitigate that?
VIKESH RAMSUNDER: It’s going to take time and real effort to regain the trust of our customers. And certainly we are now dealing with how we will move forward. But now’s not the time to deal with that. Now is the time to solve the problem at hand. And then, of course, be very clear on how we’re going to move this forward. The one thing I don’t want to do is just put out things to calm the noise. When I go out and say, these are the two or three or four things we’re going to do, I’m committed to it, and I know they’re enshrined in our strategy over the long term.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Vikesh Ramsunder, the CEO at Clicks.