January 7, 2017

Lidl is right in black or white

Lidl advertising brochure (photo: screenshot Lidl website)
Lidl's Czech model: "Black as my own face" (Othello) (photo: screenshot Lidl website)
Over the last seven years, this satirical column has been particularly critical of Lidl and its parent company Schwarz Group. Along with some trade unionists and NGOs, German Retail Blog has often questioned the ethics of this low-profile German discount giant. The company has been termed "ruthless", "hard-nosed" or "redneck" and its management "macho".

Doubt has also been cast on an internal decision to burnish corporate morals. Even a recent move by the c-suite towards a less formal management culture has been teased without mercy. But an apology is now called for: Lidl has proved that a leopard can change its spots.

How did this conversion of Saul to Paul on the journalist road to Damascus come about? A threat of legal action? A chummy lunch with the publisher? The promise of a job in the press department? No, Lidl has revealed its moral integrity through the eloquence of action.

The above fashion ad used by the privately-run company to sell its sweatshirts in the Czech Republic may look harmless enough to Anglo-Saxon or German readers, but it has created a storm in the social media. The discounter's local website has been bombarded by complaints from an irate segment of Czech consumers who do not approve the use of a black model in an advertising brochure.

The ad agency commissioned by Lidl probably thought that a black model would add street cred to a young fashion product. This is a fair enough assumption, given the incredible talent black people have shown in the US music industry. Sadly, however, the pigment of a man's skin has been interpreted by some as a battle cry.

Logic of the tribe

The worst online complaints are unrepeatable, but their general tenor is to accuse Lidl of forcing multiculturalism down customer throats.

Without wishing to give this depressing bout of xenophobia an intellectual gloss it doesn't deserve, the abuse is almost certainly linked to broader political and social phenomena far beyond the control of any retailer. These include resurgent nationalism in the West, most noticeably in the US, the UK, France, Central & Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; a general malaise concerning globalisation; and waves of refugees and economic migrants into the EU with a small, but deadly undercurrent.

Admirably, Lidl as an international retailer has refused to cave in and change its advertising in order to please the critics. This compares favourably with one overwhelmed J. Sainsbury store manager in London who tried to appease anti-Israel protesters in August 2014 by withdrawing kosher food from the shelves. Inevitably the decision antagonised the Jewish community.

Lidl's decision shows spunk because mass retailers can obviously only thrive if they keep the vast majority of people happy within each store catchment area.

Aldi Men's Oxford Shirt (photo: Aldi)
Not a word of protest: Aldi advertising in the UK featuring a black model (photo: Aldi)
But does this also mean that retailers should pander to the lowest-common denominator? Or should they be in advance of and even lead their clientele as former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy once suggested?

Put more simply still: Should grocers strive to be a moral force or stick to selling sugar and rice? Visionaries such as Gottlieb Duttweiler or John Spedam Lewis wanted retailing to have a strong ethical basis, but they lived in far less complex times.

In today's visceral and increasingly politicised world every product and every marketing image is capable of provoking howls of outrage from one section of society or another. The moral dilemma of the J. Sainsbury manager in London is a case in point: There was no choice that could have been made that would have satisfied both parties.

So Lidl has decided to become ethical in an age of increasing moral ambiguity. How it must long for the days when it was a roughneck... 

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
Our German retail B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German:
 'Schwarzes Model löst Shitstorm bei Lidl aus' by online editor Beate Hofmann in LZnet (paywall)

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