Fashion brands deal in the currency of look and lifestyle. They go to great lengths to penetrate our lives and become meaningful to us. The benefit is love and loyalty, but the relationship is emotionally charged and comes with risk.
Labelling and discrimination of any type are hot topics right now, sitting at the top of global conversation agendas. Despite their own guidelines and clear industry rules, I think brands will continue to fall foul of poor judgement at times - and they can expect to be held to account.
Plenty of social media users, including pop stars, politicians and footballers, took strong offence to the H&M promo image which provoked such ire this week, and for which it has apologised.
But I have also seen comments questioning whether the backlash is unfair, on what some see simply as a picture of a young boy in a hoodie. They think it only becomes controversial when the viewer applies their own judgement.
And this is the point. In a world of heightened sensitivity where campaigners are looking for evidence to support their cause and have the power of social media at their fingertips, what is said or shown is not necessarily what is heard or seen.
That said, I wonder whether H&M’s explanation that procedures were not followed is entirely true. I’d like to see the procedure that helps those responsible avoid this kind of error. To be truly effective, it would need to help them meet practical business requirements and synthesise the complex factors that affect how the public might judge the image in equal measure.
H&M has apologised, recognised the concern, admitted their failure, removed the image, stopped selling the product and committed to learning. All of these are important steps to a convincing response.
I think recovering trust amongst those who took offence probably requires action that proves this contrasts with what the brand stands for - which presents an opportunity to strengthen reputation over time.
Talking openly about their learning so that others in their industry can benefit from their experience would also be the mark of an industry leader.
Neil Bayley is director of business and corporate at Good Relations