Over the past week, Zara has faced a wave of negative backlash in response to its launch of a marketing campaign that seemed to resemble images from the Gaza conflict. But it was the clothing retailer’s response to the criticism that has left many consumers and communications experts alike shaking their heads. After Zara posted the campaign on its website and social media channels on December 7, commenters quickly noted that the images resembled scenes of destruction and death occurring in Gaz
Gaza, including one that showed a model holding a mannequin shrouded in a tightly packed white wrap. Zara took down the images, but it did not release a statement about the campaign until December 12. On its Instagram page, it explained that the images were conceived in July and shot in September, months ahead of the conflict. The brand also made an apology that left commenters lukewarm at best, and many outraged, feeling that Zara had invalidated their concerns entirely. Part of the statement read: “Unfortunately, some customers felt offended by these images, which have now been removed, and saw in them something far from what was intended when they were created.” As crisis communications expert Megan Paquin pointed out, the company’s statement “incorrectly minimizes the harm the images caused and brushes off an organizational failure as a misunderstanding. There is no misunderstanding about how customers felt about the images. Zara misunderstood how their campaign would be perceived, and that is a failure of the brand, not the customer. This statement reads as though Zara is simply placating a couple of customers rather than showing genuine concern for their feelings and taking action as a result.” Zara’s explanation that the campaign was conceived and shot before the conflict in Gaza began also failed to satisfy many people, who pointed out that the brand should have seen the similarities and simply not posted the campaign. “Retailers should look at their creative processes and consider including a mechanism to obtain external feedback from consumer focus groups or other sources,” Paquin explained. “Retailers should also be constantly scanning external sources of information to consider the context within which their advertising will be viewed. I imagine that these images were created months before the conflict arose, yet the failure to consider the current context is what could have led to the misalignment between the brand’s intent and consumer perception.” How retailers should handle crisis communication management For many observers, Zara’s response is a clear case study of what not to do when facing public scrutiny and criticism. But with growing pressure on businesses to weigh in on divisive social and political events, it’s only a matter of time before other businesses find themselves in a similar situation. So how can they handle a public relations crisis effectively? The first step is to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for the business to make a statement on a particular issue. Paquin explained that “there are numerous factors to consider before deciding to comment on an international conflict or other high-profile matter. That is why many crisis communications professionals recommend retailers and other organizations create an issues monitoring and management plan as their strategic foundation. In the absence of such a plan, retailers should start with an honest evaluation of their business’s relevance to the matter.” This evaluation, as Paquin elaborated, should include factors such as: Whether the retailer does business in the affected area; Has employees or other stakeholders who are affected by the conflict; What the impact to their customers could be. “Retailers should also consider whether any communication is harmful or helpful to those affected. Often, it is more helpful for an organization not to speak up in order to leave the proverbial airways clear for those who can provide critical information and resources to those affected,” said Paquin. However, if a company does choose to speak up, the expert shared one essential tip: “For organizations that do choose to communicate broadly about an international conflict, it is important not to center the statement on the organization. The act of communication in this case is about serving others, not the organization.” Do consumers truly care about how a company responds to international conflicts? Unfortunately for retailers, when it comes to whether consumers care about a company’s response to social and political conflicts, the answer isn’t as simple as a “yes” or “no,” and the response has also greatly shifted in the past five years alone. Accenture, a global professional services company, released a study in 2018 that showed approximately 63 per cent of consumers prefer to buy goods and services from companies that stand for a shared purpose in line with their personal values and beliefs. However, due to a series of factors such as consumer fatigue surrounding governmental debates, many shoppers are stating that they would prefer businesses to remain neutral on political issues. Insider Intelligence, a market research company that provides insights and trends related to digital marketing, media, and commerce, released a May 2023 data report from Bentley University and Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company, that showcases the subjects US adults believe businesses should take a public stance on. In the report, it was revealed that over 55 per cent and 52 per cent of adults think that companies should take a stance on topics like climate change and mental health respectively. However, the same study showed that only 27 per cent of US adults wanted companies to take a stance on the issue of international conflicts. Another component relating to this matter is increasing consumer cynicism around company opportunism. If a business doesn’t feel authentic or is showcasing contradictory actions to its public statements, many individuals will feel that it is simply trying to profit from performative activism. As Paquin noted, “There is a lot of pressure on organizations to take a position on every social and international issue. While it is important that organizations stand for something, it is disingenuous for most brands to insert themselves into such issues.” “Retailers should instead focus on communications that serve their stakeholders, speaking directly with employees who have family members in the affected area or identify with those affected, offering resources to humanitarian agencies who can distribute them in affected regions, and using your platform to amplify critical information from credible sources are all more effective ways to respond to these crises in ways that are helpful and not perceived as self-serving,” she affirmed.