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Zara doubles down on ad resembling Gaza victims: Could this end the brand?

Zara doubles down on ad resembling Gaza victims: Could this end the brand?

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Fashion retailer Zara is in hot water after it released a new ad campaign that had striking resemblances to scenes coming out of the ongoing war between Gaza and Israel. 

The campaign, which was released on all the retailer's social media platforms, features the Zara Atelier collection modelled by Kristen McMenamy. The campaign shows McMenamy modeling the clothes amidst white debris, rubble and, most strikingly, mannequins that are wrapped completely in white shrouds similar to those being used to wrap dead bodies in Gaza. 

After much public outcry, Zara pulled the campaign from the front page of its website. However, the images were not removed from its Instagram page and no statement has been issued as yet directly from the brand. 

Its parent company, Inditex though, reportedly said that the campaign was created in July and that the photos were taken in September before the war broke out. 

With no word from the retailer and the images still up, its brand sentiments have significantly suffered.

Don't miss: Zara's brand sentiments plummet after controversial ad resembling Gaza victims

According to media intelligence firm CARMA, the retailer saw brand sentiments plummet to 76.4% negative and only 4.2% positive after the ad was released. Prior to the incident, it had 31.6% positive sentiments and 13.6% negative sentiments. 54.8% of sentiments were neutral, according to CARMA.

After the incident, Zara's word cloud also shifted dramatically to include words such as "boycott", "disgusting", "outrage" and "genocide".

With Zara seeming to be doubling down on its campaign, it is certainly in for a PR crisis. In fact, social media engagement company Viralyft reported that since the launch of the campaign, Zara has lost over 150,000 Instagram followers. So, what exactly is its marketing team's strategy here?

According to Charu Srivastava, chief strategy officer and corporate affairs lead at TriOn &Co, the most likely reason is that they did not see anything wrong with their campaign and were not prepared for the ensuing backlash.

"Getting a statement out is not as straightforward as it might seem as well. There are layers to the drafting, editing and approval process. Time is needed to understand the entirety of the situation, the concerns and the feedback," she said, added that this is why it is very important to think about issues and crisis management before an issue or crisis occurs.

Reacting in real time is not a good idea.

Saying that, Srivastava explained that each passing minute is adding to the conversation that is swirling around this campaign.

"We live in an age of instant communication and amplification. Any delay only fuels the fire and increases speculation, rightly or wrongly," she said, adding that this is even more amplified when the issue is related to an actual ongoing war that is in itself very divisive.

"Brand reputation, credibility and customer loyalty are being tested and strained the more Zara keeps quiet. Let us also not forget that Zara is the flagship brand of Inditex, a listed company, and eventually the impact of this unfolding situation can affect the share prices," she said. 

True enough, brands that aren't careful about the sensitive political situations unfolding around the world do face larger consequences than just boycotts from their own brands. For example, recently, RHB Group, Malaysia's integrated financial services group, reportedly issued a research note advising investors to sell their shares in Starbucks' franchise owner, Berjaya Food. The bank reportedly noted a 24% slip in stock prices. 

The recommendation came as a result of the ongoing boycott of the food and beverage chain due to its alleged support of Israel in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Would a statement do more harm than good?

Saying that, a statement might not be as helpful as one might think in this situation. Kevin Kan, chief experience officer at Break Out Consulting Asia said that Zara may not have issued a response as speaking out on contentious issues is guaranteed to alienate a large portion of Zara’s employees and customers.

"This campaign could have been months in the making with many people working on the ideation, concept and production," he said.

He added that commenting on the backlash could be perceived as Zara taking sides in the war in Israel.

Agreeing with him, a corporate communications specialist who chose to remain anonymous explained that brands need time to articulate an appropriate response, more so when it relates to a highly sensitive topic. He added:

Any form of message can be dissected by the public in many ways.

He went on to say that despite that, commercial brands in his opinion should be apolitical.

"There are other ways to make a stand on an issue. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to do it via their CSR arm, and not through commercial ads that come across as opportunistic which are distasteful and does not convey sincerity," he explained.

Is recovery possible?

As Zara copes with the backlash, the question now is really if recovery is possible and what that might even look like with a crisis at this stage.

According to Syed Mohammed Idid, general manager, strategic communications and stakeholder engagement at West Coast Expressway, its not too late but time is critical.

"A sincere apology and concrete actions are crucial to begin rebuilding trust," he said, adding that they will have to acknowledge the insensitivity and express genuine regret for the ad after proactively removing the offensive content from all their platforms.

Zara will also have to be transparent and conduct an internal review. They should explain the internal review process and steps taken to prevent future incidents, demonstrating commitment to ethical marketing.

Finally, they could take things a step further by partnering with relevant organisations supporting Gaza, showcasing genuine concern for the affected communities.

Idid added that building trust takes time and consistent action which is why ongoing efforts towards social responsibility and ethical practices are crucial.

The longer they stay silent, the louder and more damaging the public outcry will become. 

Jose Raymond, managing director at strategic comms firm SW Strategies said that the damage to Zara's brand long term will remain to be seen.

"But given the global strength of the brand, recovery is almost as certain as the number of lives which will continue to be lost as a result of the conflict," he said. 

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