The customer really is king in the social media age

26 January 2018 - 16:06 By Suthentira Govender
EFF protesters outside the H&M store at Gateway Mall in Umhlanga.
EFF protesters outside the H&M store at Gateway Mall in Umhlanga.
Image: Screengrab

A child's hoodie‚ a fragrant body wash and a lotion all have one thing in common — they have forced advertisers to bow to the power of social media.

“For years we were told that customer is king‚ but you never really felt like it‚" said social media expert Yavi Madurai.

“Now‚ with the power of social media‚ the customer finally wears the crown. Finally companies have to bow down and‚ if they don’t‚ they will lose customers. H&M is a case in point.

“We see it play out on a regular basis. Our country is being run by the court and social media. Companies need to be mindful of this.”

Advertising campaigns of Nivea‚ Dove and‚ more recently‚ H&M have all felt the brunt of the customer after the brands sparked outrage for using ethnic profiling‚ being offensive or being racist.

The Swedish clothing giant is still reeling from the recent global storm over a black child sporting a “Coolest monkey in the jungle” sweater in an advertisement on its website‚ with international celebrities distancing themselves from the retailer.

Locally the Economic Freedom Fighters called for the clothing retailer to close its doors and trashed stores across the country.

Branding and advertising expert Andy Rice said the power of social media has resulted in global brands‚ with campaigns deemed offensive by consumers‚ trending for the wrong reasons.

“There seems to be an impression‚ because there have been three or four similar controversies in the last year or more‚ that advertisers are getting less wise. I don’t think that is the case at all.

“I think what is happening is that channels of communication are proliferating and getting more powerful.”

Last year Nivea came under fire over an advert for its cream targeted at black women which promised “visibly fairer skin”.

Beauty brand Dove also found itself in the midst of a social media storm after it released a series of images depicting a black woman pulling a shirt over her head and morphing into a white woman. The images went viral on social media and led to the advert being withdrawn.

“If you go back about 20 years‚ marketing was a monologue. The brand owned the conversation‚ told you what you wanted to know and you listened and responded accordingly‚” said Rice.

“Now it's a dialogue in which the consumer is every bit as powerful as the brand owner and so it forces the brand owner to be more aware of the demographic‚ the psychographics‚ the cultural nuances of everyone that the message might reach.

The latest H&M saga has also irked the Democratic Alliance‚ which has gone to the International Chamber of Commerce as well as the South African Human Rights Commission to lodge an official compliant against it for its “racially insensitive hoodie”. “The SAHRC has received two complaints on the matter. We unfortunately cannot reveal the nature of the complaints‚” said SAHRC spokesperson Gail Smith.

The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) said that‚ while it had not received complaints regarding H&M‚ the controversy raised some red flags for it as a watchdog body. ASA head Gail Schimmel said the authority had already flagged the issue of discrimination within its code or practice.

H&M’s media relations division in South Africa said: “We realise that we angered many South Africans. There is no doubt that the hoodie is racist for which we sincerely apologise. We understand that people are angry with H&M‚ but we are concerned about the vandalism in our stores.”

It has reopened all its stores in South Africa but “continues to monitor the situation”. It said the hoodie was not on sale in South Africa but on its global website.

The brand is no stranger to controversy. In 2015 H&M South Africa issued an apology‚ within weeks of opening its first stores here‚ for tweeting a comment that implied it featured white models to portray a “positive image”.

Many South Africans took to social media platforms at the weekend to voice their distaste at an advert by popular Swedish clothing store, H&M, that depicts a black child wearing a hoody with...