To Avoid Gaffes, Monitor Culture Constantly

David Hagenbuch, Professor of Marketing,  Messiah College

A footwear retailer recently emailed an advertisement featuring a photo of a young male runner, striding down a wooded road. Looking longingly from behind a tree is a very large grizzly bear. The ad’s headline was “Run with the Bear.”

If the ad seems fine, you may be forgetting about these unfortunate, recent news stories:

· CNN: “Camping teen awakens to ‘crunching sound’ as bear bites his head” ( · ABC News: “12-year-old rescues family from bear attack” ( · Fox News:“Two brown bear attacks reported in Alaska on same day” ( · SB Nation:“Professional runner in Maine gets chased by two black bears” ( · Washington Post: “Bear kills 16-year-old runner who texted to say he was being chased” (

We’ve seen an unusual number of high-profile bear attacks lately. Each was terrible. The final two cases involved bears pursuing runners—images eerily similar to the footwear ad.

The emailed ad came from Fleet Feet Sports, promotingits exclusive U.S. distribution of Karhu, a Finnish high-performance running wear.

In fairness, karhu means bear in Finnish and running shoes are both firms’ specialty, so it’s natural to combine the two concepts. At a time when bear attacks are grabbing headlines and runners are specifically among the victims, however, it’s insensitive to employ a promotion where a bear appears to be hunting a runner.

Poor Choice: Recent news warranted another image. Source: Fleet Feet
Poor Choice: Recent news warranted another image. Source: Fleet Feet

It’s hard to understand how a mistake like this could occur. Karhu has a 100-year track record of fitting the feet of runners in the U.S., and Fleet Feet is an American company headquartered in North Carolina, so the partnership clearly has cross-cultural competency. What was missed were two finer points of culture that brands can overlook easily:

1. Culture is multi-dimensional:While a demographic such as age is easy to measure—just ask when the consumer was born—culture is much more complex. It consists of many variables, e.g. food, clothing, entertainment, language, etc. Events such as civil rights protests, Woodstock and 9/11 also shape culture.

Granted, the cultural impact of bear attacks is far less than that of the other event examples, but still they weigh on many people’s minds. Communication professionals must take those feelings and perceptions, real or imagined, into account, similar to the way seashore tourism adapted to shark fears after Jaws hit movie theaters in the summer of 1972.

2. Culture is dynamic: If news and events are part of culture, then culture is continually changing. Of course, other aspects of culture, like food and clothing, also change over time, but the influence of current events on culture is much more immediate.

For instance, when terrorist attacks occur, individuals adapt their behavior almost instantly. Marketers’ strategies and tactics, in turn, must quickly reflect those new norms, whether for the short run or indefinitely.

What can brands do to avoid such promotional gaffes? The most important thing is to consider culture after strategy is created. Monitor the cultural landscape continually, paying particular attention to trending news and stories that may signal shifts in consumer sentiment. When such changes occur, brands must quickly adapt their tactics.

For Fleet Feet and Karhu, this prescription doesn’t entail anything extreme, such as changing the brand’s name from bear. It means choosing different images and text for ads—ones that don’t evoke headlines of bears pursuing people. Such simple and more culturally attuned choices ultimately will yield more effective communication.

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