#Betterforbalance needs to extend to cultural appropriation
A view from Shelina Janmohamed

#Betterforbalance needs to extend to cultural appropriation

How should a brand find the right balance between innovation and cultural appropriation?

This week we see International Women’s Day driving the message of balance that aims for a gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government and gender-balanced media coverage, to name a few ambitions. But this goes into other territories as the world opens its eyes to complex issues.

How should a brand find the right balance between innovation and cultural appropriation? And as we get ever closer to Brexit, where is the best balance between global and local when it comes to creativity? Exhibit A: a vegan wrap that made headlines last month, but for all the wrong reasons, drawing accusations of cultural appropriation and falling far short of its aspirations to be innovative. What is cultural appropriation, why is it an issue and how can your brand avoid it?

Fill me in on what’s been happening…

Marks & Spencer introduced a new "Biriyani wrap" as part of its Plant Kitchen range, featuring a combination of sweet potato, spiced basmati rice, buckwheat and roasted pepper. It was great to hear women's voices speaking up in response. Leading chefs Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express, and Maunika Gowardhan, author of Indian Kitchen, criticised the product for cultural appropriation explaining that what was being sold was not remotely connected to the dish. Plus, just to make things worse, M&S even spelt the name wrong. Biryani is the well-established spelling.

So, what went wrong?

Khan pointed out that biryani is a traditional dish based around meat, chicken or sometimes fish. She said: "You do not appropriate names from a cuisine without even bothering to do any research on that dish."  Gowardhan highlighted that M&S was doing biryani all wrong, explaining: "Thanks, but I like my biryani with rice in a bowl, not a wrap."

It is the latest incident being described as ‘cultural appropriation’, something that is an increasingly thorny issue.

Were they right, or was this just a fuss about nothing?

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group adopts the culture of a minority. Last year, Jamie Oliver got into hot water for launching a ‘jerk rice’ product, even though there is no such thing. Fashion retailer Zara also was mocked on social media for a lungi skirt for women. Variations on lungis are traditionally worn by South and South East Asian men, which comprises a cloth usually with a checked pattern worn over the lower half of the body. Plenty of people couldn’t wait to point out to Zara that the product it had turned into a woman’s skirt for £69.99 could be bought down the market for a few pounds.

By comparison, when Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain showcased her samosa pie, the reinvention was met with widespread delight. The success was partly because she respected the basic parameters of a samosa, which involves pastry and spiced mince. Her own origins spanning both British and Bangladeshi – how she describes herself and which she is acknowledged for – give her right to innovate in this way.

What does this mean for my brand?

Cultural appropriation has become a hot button topic in recent years, because it carries with it the idea that the dominant culture is profiting from something created by a group that is a minority, and may well be discriminated against, sometimes for the very thing that is being appropriated. Think of it as taking someone else’s cultural IP, dismantling what makes up the product, and then rebranding it for yourself, taking the commercial benefits.

For brands in an increasingly competitive marketplace with consumers who have sophisticated, global and ever-evolving tastes, staying on the right side of the line between creative innovation and cultural appropriation is a challenging one. And for those products that fall on the wrong side of it, like the ‘biriyani’ wrap, criticism can be fast and brutal.

Be aware of the cultural context into which you are inserting your brand and your product, and acknowledge your inspiration explicitly. There’s no point hiding it; in a globally connected world of sophisticated consumers, you’ll quickly be called out. Instead, acknowledgement adds value to your brand by demonstrating the understanding of your context, and your respect for cultural capital.

Don’t take credit for inventing a new product or idea that has been created by other communities and cultures. Be particularly mindful if your brand is going to be seen as making money out of something that has been created by others.

Acknowledge the origins of your ideas, and if there are parameters that define the original idea, be sure to respect them. Or you’ll end up being mocked.

Through respect, acknowledgement and inputs from those who are connected to those origins, be sure to credit the origin, and elevate it. If you’ve introduced innovations, explain why and how, being mindful of your right to play in the space and how your product has created something unique and of value. Then you should have struck the balance.

Also, get your spelling right.

Shelina Janmohamed is the vice-president of Islamic Marketing at Ogilvy, and one of Campaign Magazine's Trailblazers