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Hindu Shoes and Missed Lessons in Globalization

By: on March 11, 2010
Opinion
Photo Credits: zazzle.com
There are two possible explanations for this fiasco. One: some marketing executives were sleepwalking during their inter-cultural orientation training, or two: there is something more sinister afoot. Either way, since American shoemaker Keds Shoes began to promote its Hindu Keds Shoes line, my affinity for the sneaker maker, an affinity cultivated early in my childhood by their television commercials which filled me with dreams of being a sports hero, has soured considerably.

Yes, I know sinister is a strong word. So to start, I’m willing to give Keds the benefit of the doubt and assume that some of their executives were sleeping on the job. In today’s global business environment, executives are obviously busy people, and they often have to travel across multiple time zones in their exploration for new products or markets. Thus, it’s easy to understand how they could have been sleeping at an inopportune time, or at the very least had their attention span significantly compromised. And standard cultural orientation videos, anticipating such short attention spans, are usually very short, but extremely fact-intensive.

Let’s review a typical cultural orientation video for India: Although the video is only two minutes long, foott etiquette is specifically mentioned twice, at minute 1.14 about how feet are considered dirty, and at minute 1.31 advising that one should take off one’s shoes before entering a temple. Sleepy or not, how could anyone miss such a clear message? But miss it they did. Hence, a product that juxtaposes dirty feet with images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Mistake number one was not paying attention. 

I’m not sure whom Keds is targeting with this line of shoes, but if it’s Indians, that’s a bigger mistake than the first. Thinking your little product is going to change a civilization, especially a civilization with thousands of years of rich history, is sheer arrogance. That’s Global Business 101, or at least it should be. Recent business history in India provides a classic example of such arrogance and resultant failure. When US processed-foods giant Kellogg began salivating over the huge potential market India represented, they forget an essential lesson of globalization: “Brand Magic in India: Expanding a brand into a new market isn't just about translating the tagline. The best way to succeed is to study local tastes closely,” BusinessWeek, May 8, 2006.

In the November, 2005 issue of Harvard magazine, Homi Bhabha relates what happened. "Kellogg's set up a branch in India and started producing Corn Flakes to give consumers the real thing. What they didn't realize was that Indians, rather like the Chinese, think that to start the day with something cold -- like cold milk on your cereal -- is a shock to the system," says Bhabha. "And if you pour warm milk on Kellogg's Corn Flakes, they instantly turn into wet paper. In business studies, when you look at a market, you have to know something about its anthropology and its cultural rituals." Mistake number two was not paying attention.

Three strikes and you’re out. Unbelievably Keds missed a third obvious lesson, this one generic to business anywhere: you avoid mistakes by learning from the mistakes of others. Keds should have asked a simple question: “Has anyone else ever tried to market shoes like these?” The answer is yes, three times.

FRENCH SHOES WITHDRAWN AFTER HINDU OUTCRY
(13 June 2005)

“French shoe manufacturer, Minelli, has agreed to withdraw shoes with the image of the Hindu God, Lord Rama, after protests from Hindu Human Rights groups. Hindus in Britain and across the world have expressed disgust and disbelief after learning that the French fashion group's contempt for the spiritual belief and practice of Hindus. Previous gaffs by manufacturers include Roberto Cavalli's bikinis featuring Hindu Gods, Lacey’s Footwear featuring the OM sign on shoes and Coronation Street’s portrayal of Ganesha in a demeaning manner.

Ramesh Kallidai, Secretary General of the Hindu Forum of Britain said, “Hindu organizations had asked Minelli to do two things – withdraw the shoe from sale and to apologize unconditionally to the world-wide Hindu community for hurting their sentiments so strongly. While Minelli have sent a curt email to say that they have decided to withdraw the shoe from sale, there has been no sign of an apology or an acknowledgement that they made a mistake.”

Add a UK company and an US company to the list of those that have tried the very same product Keds is now pushing. But, while those earlier debaucles produced apologies, not so for the French 2005 marketing attempt. We’ll have to see whose example Keds follows. Regardless, mistake number three was not paying attention.

So Keds neglected cultural sensitivity (missed lesson number one), ignored past failures due to a similar neglect of cultural sensitivity (missed lesson number two), and is now pushing a product line which has been withdrawn from the market three times within the past dozen years due to world-wide protest (missed lesson number three). Is it possible to miss all three of those lessons? Perhaps there is a sinister motive after all.

What kind of motive? I think the American Hindus Against Defamation Press Release in response to the 2000 marketing attempt defines it best:



Hindus Outraged at Images of Gods and Goddesses on Shoes

“American Hindus Against Defamation expresses its outrage at the introduction of shoes with images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses imprinted on them.

Hindu culture considers shoes to be "dirty" and it is an age old Hindu custom to remove shoes before entering temples and even homes.  To put images of Gods and Goddesses, which are revered and worshipped by a billion strong Hindu community is not just a mark of ignorance but seemingly a deliberate attempt to denigrate Hindu dharma and Hindus around the world.” [Emphasis added]

I join them in protest, and urge consumers worldwide to do the same. But beyond just sending a message to Keds, let’s try to learn and practice the lessons they missed. If we do, we can be part of creating a true global community: a community of human beings who work together instead of a web of profiteers who exploit one another.

First, pay attention: you might be surprised by what you can learn just by listening to and respecting others.

Second, pay attention: we are not all one. Try to see differences, not as a source of problems or something to be covered over, but rather as avenues to increase the beauty of life.

Third, pay attention: learn from your mistakes (and don’t be afraid to apologize for them).
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