Michael B. Jordan sparked controversy with the launch of his new rum brand, J’ouvert. Many accused the actor and his business partners of cultural appropriation — the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, cultural practices, and ideas of a group by members of another group.
J’ouvert, a West Indian celebration, draws its roots from the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. The celebration is a remnant of the country’s colonial past in which enslaved people were forced to labor on plantations.
The carnival celebrations held annually in Trinidad and Tobago have officially started.
The rich history and cultural context of the word J’ouvert seemed to have been ignored by Jordan and caused backlash from Trinidadians and the Caribbean diaspora.
Celebrities and Cultural Appropriation
But unfortunately, Jordan isn’t the only celebrity who has missed the mark in the launch of their brands.
Kendall Jenner was accused of cultural appropriation with the launch of her tequila brand 818 in early 2021.
Kim Kardashian also faced similar backlash when she announced her shapewear brand Kimono back in 2019.
This trend speaks to a lack of research and due diligence on the part of celebrities when they are launching their brands. But it also falls on the marketing and branding experts they hire to help bring their brands to life.
Unfortunately, many businesses miss the mark when it comes to branding their products and services.
Branding and brand storytelling are not just about coming up with a catchy or cool-sounding name for your business and slapping a logo, fonts, and colors together. It involves deep introspection into how the brand serves the intended audience and, ultimately, the problem you help your customers solve.
How can brands avoid cultural appropriation catastrophes?
So how can celebrities and everyday brands avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation?
Do your research
Branding is both an art and a science. It involves doing a lot of research to learn about your target audience. It prods you to reflect on your target audience’s needs, desires, fears, and the problems they are facing.
Before launching a brand, you have to do adequate research and think about all angles of your brand name, color choices, fonts, and aesthetics, but most importantly, your brand message. What are you trying to communicate through your brand?
If Michael B. Jordan took the time to research the term J’ouvert or did a simple Google search, he may have understood the cultural context and meaning of the word before using it to name his rum brand.
Focus on your brand messaging
Brand messaging is one of the most important parts of branding and marketing efforts. Your message is central to the story you want to communicate to your customers. And yet, it’s often one of the most overlooked pieces to the brand marketing puzzle.
That’s because it’s so easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of branding. We become obsessed with the colors, logo options, and fonts, thinking that is the best and only way to differentiate our brands.
But while brand aesthetics play a crucial role, your brand messaging is central to the success of your brand. Your brand message is how you communicate with your audience. It’s what makes buyers relate to your brand by inspiring, motivating them, and ultimately making them want to interact with your brand.
Once you have your brand message figured out, it becomes much easier to create your other marketing assets like your logo, fonts, sales pages, email copy, and website content because you know exactly what you want to communicate to your customers.
For example, if Kim Kardashian had focused on her brand message, she might have seen that although the name Kimono seemed like a playful spin on her name Kim, the term has a deep and significant meaning in Japanese culture.
Speak to locals
When launching a brand that you know draws inspiration from another culture, take some time to understand the culture by speaking to the locals. Find out more about what the word or idea means to the people of that culture. Use those conversations to understand the local context and then decide if it’s the right decision to proceed with the idea.
Test the temperature
If you have a huge platform like Kendall Jenner, Michael B. Jordan, or Kim Kardashian, take advantage of that platform for your market research. Check in with your audience to see if the brand concepts and themes resonate with your audience, or if they are offensive.
Acknowledge where you got the inspiration
One of the most hurtful parts of cultural appropriation is the lack of acknowledgment of the offended group’s culture and identity.
It feels like you’re stealing an intangible piece of their history, culture, and essentially who they are. And that’s why when these branding catastrophes happen, there is such outrage and backlash. It feels like you’re taking from their well without care or acknowledgment.
Tiffany Trotter is a brand messaging and content strategist focused on helping entrepreneurs lean on the power of storytelling to clearly communicate with their audience, attract more clients and get more sales. She is also the author of Amazon #1 new release Brave Little Firsts: The Remarkable Firsts of Women from Around the World.