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Understanding Appropriation vs. Appreciation for Brands  

With society’s increasing awareness of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, one of the biggest conversations that has been occurring revolves around the differences in appropriation vs. appreciation and how individuals and larger brands can ensure they are appreciating cultures instead of appropriating them.  

Appreciation happens when the desire to understand and celebrate cultures and specific facets of that culture, or individuals connected to it, is the driving force for referencing or using aspects of a culture. Appropriation, on the other hand, occurs when brands adopt facets of culture without understanding their importance.  

We’ve seen this in the fashion industry, when brands appropriate cultures into high-end fashion lines and marketing that adopt trends with origins in the Black queer community, or when retail brands take objects that are important to the Native American community to sell to the mainstream public, like sage or clothing – for example, the styles and trends appropriated at Coachella each year.  

Styles and trends made popular by marginalized groups, such as the BIPOC and queer communities, are often deemed as “edgy” or “fringe” and challenge society’s established gender binary views of fashion. Take modern ball culture, for example. Predominantly driven by the BIPOC queer community, and especially the Black queer community, it has had a profound impact on mainstream culture.  

Ball culture began in the 19th century as a social rebellion from laws requiring people to dress in accordance with gender norms at the time. Fast forward to 2019, the Met Gala, considered by many to be one of the most prestigious displays of fashion, made their theme “Camp.” During this Met Gala, we saw more fashion revolving around gender non-conforming looks, like Jared Leto’s or Harry Style’s, an example of mainstream cultures’ adoption of styles and trends made popular by the BIPOC and queer communities. 

Over the years, particularly in American culture, there have been numerous fashion trends that have stemmed from the BIPOC trans and non-binary community. Those trends are then adopted by the BIPOC queer community and BIPOC women, followed by the overall queer community. At this point, the trends have been made more palatable to the mainstream community – now considered less edgy and more “acceptable” — and we see those trends adopted by and capitalized on by mainstream society, corporations, and fashion labels and brands. For example, the phenomenon of makeup contouring, where makeup is applied in a certain way to exaggerate or minimize facial features, stemmed from the drag community, yet gained its popularity through celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. 

We continue to see the adoption of many of these trends made popular by marginalized communities in mainstream culture today. However, in recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of the conscious consumer 

Today, consumers are increasingly aware of the morals and values of companies. Brands that are appropriating cultural elements into their business are seen as inauthentic, and consumers are quick to cut ties with brands they see as immoral or disingenuous. So, how can companies ensure that they are taking actionable steps to appreciate the cultures and styles of these marginalized groups instead of appropriating them for profit?  

Appropriation vs. Appreciation in the Retail and Fashion Industries 

Instead of just appropriating or adopting these fashion choices or points of pop culture, there are many ways that companies can give back to these communities as well as put themselves ahead of fashion and retail trends at the same time.  

The first and most obvious one is talent sourcing. Instead of just waiting for fashion trends to take years to go through the usual social flow, companies can hire BIPOC and/or queer creatives. Through this talent sourcing, brands can get far ahead of trends and capitalize on being trendsetters instead of focusing on how to differentiate their takes on specific fashion and retail trends. Additionally, by strategically promoting diverse talent within the decision-making hierarchies at companies, such as managers and executives who make production planning decisions, companies can better represent the cultures and people to whom they are selling their brands. 

Calvin Klein made waves in the fashion world when they featured Jari Jones, a Black trans plus model on one of their iconic billboards in lower Manhattan. Not only did this give an incredible opportunity to a member of some of the most marginalized communities in America, but it also was a visible show of solidarity from a major fashion brand to the Black community, the queer community, and the fat community. 

Partnering with queer or BIPOC creatives is also another way to connect and appreciate these communities that may not be as represented in these corporate spaces. One brand that partnered with trans and BIPOC community members was Coach for their “We C You” Pride campaign to support people feeling seen and understood, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. They partnered with pop culture icons like Kim Petras, a trans pop star; Bob the Drag Queen, the winner of season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race; and Rickey Thompson, a young queer Black influencer.  

Another way to overcome appropriation vs. appreciation is to represent those trends authentically by researching the history of the trend and adopting the most authentic version or form of the fashion trend.  At the bare minimum, companies or brands that rely on the fashion and culture of the BIPOC queer community should also find ways to support them. Skittles showed allyship to this community this past year by partnering with Todrick Hall and the National Black Trans Advocacy Coalition (BTAC) and donated $100,000 to BTAC’s Black Trans Covid-19 Community Response Fund Initiative.  

If your company or organization is looking for ways to ensure you’re appreciating cultures instead of appropriating them, reach out to our diversity, equity, and inclusion team to learn more about Clarkston’s unique Enterprise Destination Mapping for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (EDM for DE+I) tool. 

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Tags: Brand Communication, Diversity + Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Retail Trends
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