Authentic has long been one of the biggest buzzwords in marketing and branding, so much so that we’re tempted to tune it out. Is one true-to-its-roots, heritage, homespun, honest, artisanal company really different from the next when they’re all telling the same brand story?
What’s true for companies is even more true for individuals in this, our golden age of the personal brand. Anyone who hopes for attention and success has to stand out, to be deeply something, to take a stance. Performers from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé have confidently used self-expression to, yes, earn megabucks for themselves, but also to shape the culture for the better, making it a more welcoming place for anyone else who was “born this way.”
But in the competition for attention and authenticity, companies and individuals have started to go too far. Playing up something that’s within you, or with which you have a genuine connection, is one thing, but appropriating from other cultures is another. The line between homage and parody can be blurred. If you’re going to borrow iconography, it’s not enough to think it looks cool. You’d better know what the symbols mean.
I’m all for branding, standing out and being unorthodox, but I think we need to honor other people’s symbols and not appropriate them. On one level, it can seem like a “So what?”—hardly different from wearing rockabilly dresses or vintage cowboy boots—but the reality is that we need to give everyone their sacred artifacts and spaces.
That’s why musician, record producer and fashion designer Pharrell Williams apologized for posing in a Native American headdress on the cover of Elle’s U.K. version. (Perhaps the photo editor should consider apologizing as well.)
After taking heat for turning a revered symbol into a fashion accessory, the musician, who did tell O in 2012 that he had some Native American ancestry, for whatever that’s worth, issued a public apology, stating, “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”
The tide is turning against such usage throughout the fashion industry, in fact, with companies including Chanel, H&M, Paul Frank, Urban Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret coming under fire for inappropriate use of native imagery because they didn’t understand the meaning of it.
“The headdress is a sign of honour,” Wanda Nanibush, a First Nations artist and activist, told the CBC, “so really the only way that someone like
In the music world, Pharrell’s situation drew attention to something that’s been happening for a while now, with feathered headdresses turning up at rock festivals from Coachella to Bonnaroo.
The backlash has grown strong enough that the Bass Coast music and arts festival in British Columbia banned native-style headgear from its concerts last weekend. Bass Coast Communications Manager Paul Brooks told the CBC: “This has been an ongoing topic of debate within electronic music and within festivals, and our core team felt it was time to take a stand. There are many Indian bands in the area, many reservations, so we want to be good neighbours. We want to be respectful of aboriginal people not only in the area … but across Canada and North America.”
It was the right stand to take, and a popular one. Brooks says he has been thanked and praised by outlets ranging from Jezebel to The Guardian. The festival’s headliners, the native DJ group A Tribe Called Red, also tweeted their approval.
And speaking of red … America’s most controversially named sports team is digging in. The Washington Redskins just hired PR agency Burson-Marsteller to run redskinsfacts.com, a site that says it’s “a growing online community of passionate Washington Redskins fans and others who support the team’s use of its name and logo.” Reuters reports that the football franchise is behind the site.
The Redskins’ trademark registration was canceled on June 18, but that won’t force the team to change its name.
Burson was hired only “to provide technical and editorial support to distribute information to those who inquire about the team’s history and name, which includes the website redskinsfacts.com.”
I’m not sure I would want to make any argument, let alone that I could make a strong argument, to defend the Redskins’ name in any context. Rather, I’d be counseling team owner Daniel Snyder (who once owned agencies that are now part of Havas, the company I work for, which is a funny coincidence but totally irrelevant) to protect his asset with a name change more consistent with these times.
Dan Snyder would do well to be like Pharrell and apologize, or like Bass Coast and take a stand, and make a change that’s more respectful of our diverse world.