Athletic and cultural giant Nike had a significant misstep last week when they named a limited edition shoe after the drink known in this country as a “Black & Tan,” a layered combination of a stout and lager beer. The company was doing so to honor Ireland in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, however, the gesture was received as an insensitive and somewhat confusing insult. Nike did not fully understand the significance of the “Black & Tan” phrase in Ireland.

The “Black & Tan” is, yes, a layered drink of stout and lager, but the drink itself is more common in the US than in Ireland where the phrase is associated with the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force used to suppress revolution in Ireland particularly from 1920-192 during the last two years of the Irish War of Independence. The group was nicknamed the “Black & Tans” for the colors of their improvised uniforms and had a reputation for attacks on Irish civilians, thus, Irish sentiment towards the phrase, even the word “Tan” remains very negative. It represents a painful time in the nation’s history and old tensions with Britain, making the mention of “Black & Tan” in marketing efforts simply puzzling. Such a case has clear PR and Marketing implications.

Cater to the Context
“Cater to the context” is becoming a mantra of this blog and my writing, but the Nike case is proof that such mistakes do happen and that cultures DEMANDS our attention. Nike had the best of intentions, but unfortunately that is lost because of their failure to do the necessary research on their message and its appropriateness for the given context and target audience. When involving any culture (usually one other than your own), the culture needs to be analyzed and understood before action is taken. The extent of the action or campaign dictates the level of cultural understanding and analysis required, and there is always some required.

This misstep was significant not necessarily because of the amount of PR backlash received or the possibility that Nike will not be able to recover (which is not the case), but because of how easily it could have been avoided. The amount of research that was required was a simple Google search, small-scale market research/focus groups (really one conversation with someone from Ireland would have sufficed), or a look at the use of the phrase in past marketing efforts (Ben & Jerry’s made a similar mistake in 2006 using the phrase in the name of an ice cream flavor). The marketing message was based on assumptions that Nike decision-makers and marketers had on what the phrase meant, seemingly assuming it had the same significance both in the US and in Ireland.  Now, the extra public relations, SEO, and reputation management work to replace the negative story with the resulting apology far outweigh any work on the front-end to avoid the situation.

In sum, marketers should take from this case:

  • Local research should be done to establish a deeper understanding of the cultures involved.
  • Determine if company perceptions or assumptions match the reality of the local context, no matter how seemingly simple the involvement with the culture in question appears.
  • Proactively seeking to avoid such situations is better than trying to fix the damage they cause after.

Connect with me directly at rbuddenhagen@webimax.com,  on Twitter @ryanwbudd, with any thoughts on this case or how culture and internet marketing impact your business. Also, check out Anthony Pensabene’s blog today, just below, some great info on language, terms, and culture – what is “Culturomics” and is there really an SEO name debate?