Can you spot the brand connection between Native American Navajo, Australian Aborigines, East African Maasai, the Amish, Haredi and Chasidic Jews and plastic cheese?
Archaeological evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo and Apache entered the US Southwest around 1400 BCE. The Native American Navaho nation’s distinctive clothing, including name, symbolic headwear and ritual designs are imbued with exceptional significance for over 3000,000 enrolled tribal members- the largest federally recognised tribe of the United States.
In 2011 the clothing retailer, Urban Outfitters marketed a range of Navajo-branded clothing and accessories. The Navajo Nation government alleged violations of trademarks as well as criticism of products; particularly underwear and a liquor flask- that many tribal members considered simply as being insolent.
Urban Outfitters used the name “Navajo” on its products. The actual Navajo tribe holds at least 10 trademarks on the name that covers clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products and textiles. The Navajo licenses its name to certain businesses in exchange for a profit share. The Navajo nation’s Department of Justice sent the Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters’ CEO, a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the company pull the Navajo name from its products.
At the time the tribe remained “cautiously optimistic” it could persuade Urban Outfitters to adopt another name and trademark.
The Navajo nation is constantly battling for its trademarks. Last year, they successfully forced the cancellation of a ‘Navaho’ trademark used by a French company conducting business in the US. The tribe argued the name was phonetically identical and infringed on its trademark.
In 1997, Australian Aborigines secured a voluntary code that governed their cultural and intellectual brand property over issues including:
Arts and crafts
Rural (involving bush foods and traditional medicines)
Being a voluntary code, the Aborigine people were able to influence the sensitive brand issue of corporate social responsibility – naming and shaming brands that exploited their heritage.
Created in Africa Made Everywhere Else
There are an estimated three million Maasai spread across Kenya and Tanzania. The potent image of a Maasai tribesperson dressed in traditional array, such as ritually significant beads, has been featured by many brands to sell products and services.
The images intimate authenticity and/or culture. Brands using such tactics include a range of accessories called Masai marketed for Land Rover, Louis Vuitton’s Masai range of hats, scarves beach towels and bags, and Masai Barefoot Technology, which markets speciality trainers.
However, for many deeply rooted Maasai people, an image is not just skin deep. For example each time a tourist snaps a photograph they emblematically and spiritually draw Maasai blood. According to Light Years IP, an NGO that secures intellectual property rights in developing countries, approximately 80 companies around the world currently use either the Maasai name or image. According Light Years IP, if a corporation owned the Maasai brand, it would be worth at the very least £6.6m a year.
Denigrating Genuine Identity
The Mea-Shearim district of Jerusalem, as well as Bnei-Brak district in Tel Aviv are Israel’s most renowned areas and homes to ultra- orthodox Haredi and Chasidic Jews.
These relatively tiny areas – especially Mea Shearim – offer tax-paying residents a safe-haven to practice their beliefs in what is international recognised as a Jewish state, according to a religious continuity spanning over 5000 years.
For example, on the Shabbat – between sunsets on Friday night to sunset the next day, the area is traffic-free, so not violating religious laws of the Jewish Shabbat – and enabling local families to stroll through the few streets in their neighbourhood in peace.
Equally, at every entrance to Mea Shearim there are signs politely requesting female visitors, to dress modestly. During the Shabbat, visitors are asked to refrain from smoking, photography, driving or use of mobile phones. When entering synagogues, men are asked to cover their heads.
Yet, on a weekly basis, the requests are ignored – mostly for political reasons as well as irascibility that a local traditional community doesn’t completely integrate with modernity.
Ironically for the majority living in communities such as those in Mea Shearim or certain Amish communities in regions such as Ohio, USA, such ways of life incorporate many of the ideals which brands seek to promote: civility, mutual respect, pride in social identity and harmony. Clearly, it is not suggested that a fulfilling, rounded life can only be enjoyed through following any particular creed or tradition. However the constant pressure demanding global uniformity to comply, risks the lost of national, communal and individual brand identities.
To lighten (literally) the point – whilst remaining focused on identity and traditions being subjected to artificial uniformity – last month a local British annual event took place at Cooper’s Hill in Brockworth, Gloucestershire. The event dates back to the 1800s. It involves a race to roll an 8lb piece of cheese down a hill.
Only this year, to comply with modern regulations, runners chased a plastic imitation cheese after Diana Smart, who had provided the cheese since 1986, was told that she could be held accountable for any injuries and accordingly decided to keep her cheese for herself.
Rather than actually respecting authenticity for national, tribal, local and inherent traditions, in a world sold as socially authentic, brand crafted perceptions increasingly become counter intuitive – sacrificing and exploiting aspects of genuine cultures and identity in exchange for blind faith in calculated illusions of commercially or otherwise lucrative truth.