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Brand Strategy Work & Wellbeing Diversity & Inclusion

Circles.Life’s faux pas: where it went wrong and how to stop it happening again


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

June 15, 2021 | 15 min read

Activism is still largely in its infancy in Singapore and, culturally, the country is not as predisposed to discussing divergent viewpoints. How should brands join in the conversation with sensitivity?

It has become commonplace in recent years for brands to engage in trendjacking to start a conversation on a trending social issue as it can help them build buzz and break through the saturated advertising landscape.

While consumers care when brands trendjack or take a stand on social issues, it highly depends on the relevance in which the brand places their mark as it boils down to the choice of the trend, the relevance to their target audience, the creativity used to represent, and – most importantly – the brand’s ability to create and build engagement.

One brand that recently attempted to trendjack was Singapore-based telco Circles.Life, which tried to address the rise of racism in Singapore. The country, which has a Chinese majority, has in recent times seen the rise of racist incidents, such as an interracial couple being confronted by a Chinese Singaporean man who made racist remarks, calling them a “disgrace”, and telling them they should date within their own race.

To address this, Circles.Life put out a post on social media with a graphic that said: “This post was designed by a Filipino. Copywritten by a Malay. Approved by a Chinese. From a Singaporean brand that is 100% for the people.”

The post drew immediate backlash from social media users for being insensitive and tone-deaf, with over 1,165 comments on Instagram asking for the brand to take down the post. However, Circles.Life doubled down and put out another post stating it “has and always will stand for equality”, but did not take down the original post.

Further backlash ensued, leading the brand to put up an apology post, but the two other posts remained up.

Delbert Stanely Ty, head of marketing at Circles.Life, acknowledges the brand made an error in judgment and did not give this topic the thoughtfulness it deserves. He explains the intention was to celebrate diversity in a light-hearted manner by showcasing the Circles.Life team and promoting inclusivity in Singapore.

Rather than trendjacking, he says Circles.Life was trying to take a stand on encouraging a multicultural and multi-racial community, but this did not come across in the way intended.

“The details in the post were meant to showcase our diversity and not indicate a particular hierarchy. This was a key part of the error in our judgement as we missed this point completely. Our leadership team is from Singapore, and we have employees from 21 different nationalities working across the company,” he explains.

“We have chosen to keep our original posts up because this is a learning that we take seriously. The comments under the post are what we are learning from and what we do not want to lose.”

How can brands prevent misrepresentation?

Circles.Life’s faux pas is just one of many examples of brands in Singapore finding it a challenge to get their ads culturally right.

To address this issue, a group of public relations practitioners have come together to form NoLabels Collective to identify and stop misrepresentation and discriminatory content before it happens.

Made up of advisors from diverse backgrounds, including media veterans and advocates, the non-profit group wants to help marketing teams that are lean and may lack representation and cultural understanding of the diverse segments of people within the community.

Content submitted for feedback will be reviewed specifically on potential misrepresentation (design, language or quality of content will not be reviewed) for a nominal fee. The team will assess the content and forward the submission to a contributor to review and convey feedback within five working days depending on complexity.

“Many issues are complex and nuanced as they have deep historical roots and sensitivities that may have also evolved over time. There is also a need to recognize that there is a spectrum of opinions and sensitivities that are dependent on a variety of lived realities and social circumstances of different individuals,” explains Freda Yuin, co-founder of NoLabels Collective.

“Without taking time to research and dig deeper into these issues, and at the same time being under pressure to create within a short timeline, it is easy to overlook certain aspects of a topic or cause. This lack of awareness and knowledge may sometimes lead to the creation of insensitive, hurtful and discriminatory content that may not be intended.”

She continues: “That is the result of systemic issues within our community. Instead of facing these systemic problems with negativity and anger in the aftermath of miscommunication, we wanted to find a way to be able to identify these issues and propose solutions and educate others in a non-confrontational space.”

Fauzi Aziz, a NoLabels Collective advisor and the marketing lead at The Smart Local Media Group, notes that businesses, like the people behind them, have blind spots.

“It takes a lot of work to acknowledge that these blind spots exist, whether from a position of power or privilege. So having an outsider’s point of view can provide a much-needed second opinion on whatever they are planning to put out and help circumvent any discriminatory messaging,” he says.

A future with culturally appropriate ads?

Yuin hopes NoLabels Collective will eventually become a safe space for individuals, businesses and organizations from all walks of life to start and share meaningful, respectful and inclusive conversations in Singapore, and maybe the world.

“Humans have been creating content since the caveman days, but we are in an era of instantly shareable content. Almost all, if not all, the content we create is for the purpose of sharing with others,” she explains.

“We hope that together with our team of advisors, we would be able to offer individuals, businesses and organizations a resource that they can tap into to seek a neutral third opinion on the content they’re creating.”

Another NoLabels Collective advisor Andrea Chy, a brand manager at a jewelers, says sometimes it requires a company to listen to a team member’s personal experience or knowledge for it to realize where it stands.

“Sometimes it takes a bit more research and really takes the time to understand the different issues when they realize the problem at hand. Most of the time, there is so much content to digest about anything that reaching out for help or advice is one of the only ways to keep up.”

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