What we can learn from Burger King’s chopsticks blunder

Burger King's Vietnamese Burger ad

The fat hit the fryer with Burger King this week, when it launched an Instagram campaign for its new 'Vietnamese-style' Burger in New Zealand.

The campaign, which featured white actors attempting to eat a burger while using chopsticks incorrectly, was quickly removed by the fast food giant, after social media users from a diverse range of East Asian backgrounds pointed out that it was racist and offensive.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen huge brands use chopsticks as a semiotic signifier for 'East-Asianness'. Last November, Dolce and Gabanna released a series of ads depicting an Asian model in a D&G dress trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks, to a backdrop of sexually-suggestive comments from a male narrator. It prompted a similar response from social media users, causing the brand's perception in China to fall to an all-time low.

It’s a massive, and frankly lazy misjudgement from the fast food giant. But the unfortunate reality is that brands make cultural missteps, sometimes amounting to racially insensitive ‘’micro-aggressions’’ all the time.

This can inadvertently alienate people, and severely damage brand credibility in the long-term.

Striking the right balance

Consumers are naturally programmed to interpret the things they see through their own subconscious cultural lens.

So, it’s imperative for brands to make sure that the messages, words and symbols they are using translate in a way that is both culturally relevant and sensitive to the consumer’s cultural experience of the world.

That being said, in an age of increasing globalisation, brands should also take care to avoid falling into the trap of hyper-localisation, because - thanks to the internet and social media - most brands now have a global presence, whether they like it or not.

That means the target market can no longer be the only concern for brands when developing campaigns or sharing content. Their content will be easily accessible to people elsewhere in the globe, all of whom will come armed with their own set of cultural norms and biases.

We saw this come to light with Burger King’s latest gaff. Although the ad was launched in New Zealand, the Instagram network catapulted it onto the world stage. The result was that the ad, and Burger King consequently, ended up attracting criticism from people all over the world.

The fact is that, from now on, whatever brands produce is inherently international. Ensuring messages conveyed in one market are not contradicted by that in another – even if they have been shaped for that specific audience – is therefore critical.

Getting this balance right that will be the biggest challenge for brands in the years to come. In order to meet this challenge, they must make it their mission to engage in regular cultural pitstops, where they carry out an in-depth analysis of the cultural trends occurring, not only in their target markets, but also globally. Relying on hearsay, or the opinions of key decision makers, will not be enough.

Starting from within

It goes without saying that, if brands want to have authentic appeal on the global stage, they need to work with people that understand the markets they’re targeting first-hand, so they can filter this message through the relevant cultural lens.

Having a local team or expert on hand is therefore important, but cultural understanding should begin within the brand itself. That means employing people from a broad spectrum of different cultural backgrounds, within the senior team, as well as at a more junior level.

When there is not enough diversity within the workforce, it can have a significant impact on the kind of content a brand is sharing. The Art director for the recent ’creepy’ Burberry campaign for Chinese New Year was a Caucasian man with a Western background, for instance – and this bias filtered, consciously or unconsciously, into his work.

Working to build a workforce that reflects the global stage is as important as it is to take the time to understand the unique cultural contexts of local markets.

Continuous cultural analysis

International tourism, business travel, migration, and the influence of international media means modern audiences are more fluid than they once were.

But culture is ingrained in our subconscious - so certain boundaries still apply.

By understanding cultural change, and by recruiting a diverse cross-section of employees, brands can ensure that they are using words and symbols that are relevant and meaningful to consumers - whether in advertising, packaging, on social media or elsewhere.

Emily Porter-Salmon is associate director at Sign Salad

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