Culture Clash Means Crisis Management for Dunkin’ Donuts

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    Business as usual in one country can create a dangerous backlash in another

    The U.S. headquarters of Dunkin’ Donuts has apologized for a Thai campaign that depicted a woman in blackface makeup after it raised a ruckus here in the US. While a campaign like this seems to be an obvious no-no, the Thai Dunkin Donuts operates independently from its parent company, and racial stereotypes in advertising are no rarity in Thailand.

    Check out this quote, from a Miami Herald report on the Dunkin’ situation:

    The campaign hasn’t ruffled many in Thailand, where it’s common for advertisements to inexplicably use racial stereotypes. A Thai brand of household mops and dustpans called “Black Man” uses a logo with a smiling black man in a tuxedo and bow tie. One Thai skin whitening cream runs TV commercials that say white-skinned people have better job prospects than those with dark skin. An herbal Thai toothpaste says its dark-colored product “is black, but it’s good.”

    Hours before the apology was issued by Dunkin’ Donuts headquarters, the company’s chief executive in Thailand dismissed the criticism as “paranoid American thinking.”

    “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” the CEO Nadim Salhani said in a telephone interview. “We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?”

    What this is, more than anything, is a culture clash, created by what appears to be a lack of forward thinking on Dunkin’ Donuts’ part. Thing is, considering how our borders have been eradicated by the Internet, organizations that operate in multiple regions and span different cultures need to have guidelines set as a sort of preventative crisis management. Sure, Dunkin sales may be up in Thailand, but the actions that branch of the organization takes can, as we see here, create negative situations for the brand as a whole, and especially those in regions that don’t hold the same values or beliefs.

    Fact is, your average consumer is not going to research and see that Dunkin Thailand is pretty much its own company and takes no orders from Dunkin U.S., what they see is that Dunkin Donuts made a racist ad, and maybe they’ll talk with their wallets by heading over to Starbucks for their coffee tomorrow instead. Whether it’s, “no racial tones in any advertising,” “our employees will wear region-appropriate uniforms,” or any number of other topics where cultures quite clearly differ, when you enter a new market, or allow your name to be used in said market, taking control any factors that could reflect badly on the organization as a whole is a vital part of the crisis management process.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]