As marketing mishaps go, it doesn't get much worse than millions of people watching unchecked racism happening and associating that with your brand.
Yet for Ryanair, that is exactly what happened, as more than seven million people watched video footage uploaded in October of an elderly black female passenger being racially abused on a flight by a white man, with the crew perceived to be doing nothing. The incident took place on a flight that was about to depart from Barcelona to London Stansted.
More than 350,000 people have signed a petition demanding the airline apologise and compensate the passenger for seemingly failing to respond to racist abuse.
The lesson here is that brands need to think about how their people and processes need to have respect at the heart of every touchpoint and this needs to be built into their DNA so that they can tackle these issues with consideration and authenticity.
Fill me in…
The man involved in the incident was upset that the 77-year-old woman with arthritis had taken some time to get up to allow him to reach his window seat. When her daughter explained that she was disabled, he replied: "I don’t care whether she’s f****** disabled or not – if I tell her to get out, she gets out."
The man called her an "ugly black bastard", shouted "Don’t talk to me in a foreign language, you stupid ugly cow" and added: "If you don’t go to another seat, I’ll push you to another seat."
Eventually, the woman was moved to sit with her daughter and the man remained where he was. No further action was taken by the crew and no security or police were called at the time. Ryanair said that staff were not aware of the racist comments and that as soon as they saw the footage, they notified the police and are co-operating.
So what went wrong?
Discriminatory treatment is being highlighted more frequently and more vocally than ever before. The video footage leaves viewers to see the incident and decide what it means for themselves – completely untouched by the brand.
Consumers increasingly demand inclusivity in communications, products tailored for different needs, and language and engagement that are respectful. Sometimes brands do it well but, more often, they find themselves on a rocky path of learning.
Consumer engagement in real time is the rockiest path of all. It requires employees to live and breathe those values, often making decisions in challenging contexts. It can’t be pre-recorded, printed, amended or monitored in real time.
Which is why, when it goes wrong, it is received with fury – because consumers feel that the curtain has been lifted and, despite every attempt to control brand image, it appears the hidden truth reveals itself.
Aside from the obvious social implications, the price of getting it wrong is a commercial one as well.
In April 2017, a passenger on a United Airlines flight departing from Chicago was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off the plane by three security guards when he expressed that he didn’t want to be taken off an overbooked flight. The passenger said he was racially profiled and physically pulled off the plane because he is Chinese. The incident, along with the airline's poor handling of the situation, led to United suffering a share price drop of around 4% – or more than $1bn.
Was it a fuss about nothing?
The Ryanair row falls into a long line of incidents when brands faced accusations of racism. While of course it has a massive impact on black and ethnic-minority consumers, it causes negativity among consumers more generally, because they expect brands to be on the "right side" and lead the way in tackling issues such as racism and diversity.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of ad campaigns that make it appear brands are tone-deaf to racism. H&M ran into trouble for a picture of a black boy wearing a hoodie with the phrase "Coolest monkey in the jungle". And no one can forget the Pepsi ad in which Kendall Jenner fixed Black Lives Matter with a can of soda.
What does this mean for my brand?
Good intentions from brands are not enough. Unless there is a strongly ingrained culture, with processes that make it robust and leaders who lead by example and hold staff accountable, things can and will go wrong.
That means more people in both the boardroom and in customer-facing roles who are diverse.
Having brand ambassadors from diverse backgrounds is important. Don’t make those them an empty gesture – put real insight and training behind it.
It’s important to remember that it’s not just about fixing "how the brand looks", but the processes and training that people are given to manage situations in an appropriate way. It sounds so obvious, yet it’s so true – what consumers experience is what leaves a lasting effect. That means all the good you stand for has to be instinctive to all employees.
Shelina Janmohamed is vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy