Marc Jacobs’ Team:  Small Decisions Make for a Big Blow Up

​I have to comment on the decision making of the Marc Jacobs team for the New York Fashion Week runway show with faux dreadlock hairdos. This internet blow up is an example of business decisions made without knowledge and sensitivity to the social and cultural envirnment that can affect a major product launch. The New York Times article on Sunday pointed out how the big and little players in the Marc Jacob show were uninformed, insensitive and unprepared for the blowback. 
(Faux Locs, A Real Uproar. NYT 09/18/16)

Last Thursday, the Marc Jacobs models had their hairdos structured as faux dreadlocks out of multicolored yarn for his New York Fashion Week show. When the pictures hit the Internet it triggered a social media blow up about cultural appropriation. Comments by Black women highlighted the double standards for high-fashion Caucasian models wearing dreadlocks, versus Black women or anyone with non-traditional hair as not being a good fit to hire into companies. 

These are my comments from a business point of view on how social/cultural awareness and sensitivity are now essential elements of marketing research, communications, product development and sales promotion. I am struck by the lack of product marketing, planning and decision making at all levels of the hair debacle by Marc Jacobs, Guido Palau (the hair stylist), and Jena Counts (the hair-piece artisan). Even if you are “just” a team member or a task doer, you want to make sure you as the little guy in a chain of decision making have both local market information and a voice with the decision makers to achieve a desirable market and customer experience. 

Marc Jacobs’ initial response to the negative social media comments set off another blow back, but he finally apologized Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Jacobs did not anticipate nor test his dramatic hair styles on a diverse audience. He got a lot of publicity but the headlines were not about his clothes and designs. 

All business is local
The hair designer Guido Palau said he was inspired by a “mishmash of things” from punk rock to Japanese Harajuku styles. He forgot that all business is local. In a U.S. show, sensitivity and respect for the role of hair in the African American and all ethnic communities is essential. More than anyone on the runway show team, he should know how much time and money diverse women spend straightening, dying and styling hair to appear in public with “good hair.” Alicia Keys’ statement to style her own hair and not wear makeup is a powerful role model for me as a women of color to let my hair go where it wants to.

The very last paragraph in the article mentioned the artisan Jena Counts who constructed the hairpieces. She was quoted as saying, “It is so hurtful to me. It was never in my head that it would be brought up as an issue. I don’t understand why they would react that way.” 

She may feel hurt now, but hopefully she can turn it into a learning moment for herself, small business owners, contractors or team members who assume there is little risk by being the quiet dutiful task-doer on the team. As a part of a highly visible project, she can take responsibility for understanding trends in her industry, location and asking if the concept had been previewed with a diverse group. She could have even asked for a focus group with diverse women to develop styles they loved and felt were respectful of their social, cultural communities and values. 

This runway show could have been a great success, building trust with new customer segments in the lucrative New York and broader U.S. market. Testing for audience response from strangers on the street is one of the best tests before any consumer product launch. 

If you are a contractor or business owner of any size, prepare for high visibility opportunities. Define your guidelines for success for these big opportunities. Be sure to ask questions to bring to the surface issues and risks that must be addressed before you go public and hit the Internet. Be the leader who delivers the project or product results that generate trust and confidence with your ideal customers and public. 

Feel free to modify these guidelines to use as you build public visibility:

  • Be clear on your business values and how they help you and your team be successful
  • Clearly define the public reaction you want to generate from specific audiences
  • Surface risks or challenges that could result from going public and address the issues
  • Do the market research and anticipate possible internet reactions
  • Be actively involved in the decision-making process for products you contribute to in any way

Here are some questions for you:
What do you think about this controversy?
Do you have other ideas for how the Marc Jacobs team could have been successful? 
What are you doing to build the voice you want to be known for on the Internet?
How have you dealt with difficult internet conversation you may have experienced?

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