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Cultural Appropriation in Branding Part 1: Twitter, Tea, and Easter Chocolates

In this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu expresses her viewpoints on the appropriation of African ideas and resources, then analyzes its effect on brand identities

In this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu expresses her viewpoints on the appropriation of African ideas and resources, then analyzes its effect on brand identities…


When the issue of cultural appropriation first popped up on the Internet a few years ago, I was hesitant to agree. Globalization has become so viral we seem numb to the ways in which we absorb cultures aside from our own. But, now I have some sincere questions. If “branding” is all about showcasing the authentic spirit of an entity, why do so many companies with predominantly White executives use markers of African cultures to create their brands? Why do Internet users who are not of African descent feel so free to express themselves with Black memes and phrases they can’t identify with culturally? And why are people of African descent still not trademarking or copyrighting their creative (read: intellectual) property?


To some, branding means “the interaction between an organization and its consumers”. To others, it means the “ability to focus on your target audience”. And yet, it could also mean “the feel”, ‘the message”, or “the story” a company wants to tell; the need for something to exist; or the belief that motivates a company to exist. In simple terms, it’s a logo, a block of colors, or a slogan.


Cultural Appropriation

For some reason, some types of branding seem unable to form without the use of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation makes my blood boil. From the widespread appeal of African-American terminology, fashion, jazz, and hip-hop music to the down-to-earth influence of African woodwork, textiles, and sculpting, these creations are copied by non-African entities for their own financial gain and notoriety. And, to me, it feels like robbery. (Given historical evidence,  Africa is more familiar with “robbery” than any other continent on the planet. It’s also familiar with giving away its jewels in exchange for crumbs.)


Appropriation and Advertising

My blood especially boils when I see certain commercials or advertisement banners. Within the past decade, have you noticed more and more companies using Black slang, gestures, or dance to sell their products (with no Black actor present)? What about the latest headlines? (Think “fist bumps”, “mic drops,” or the last time you heard “yassss”.) Verizon and Target are the first to come to my mind. There are even companies that will go so far as to take a slang term and use it in their name. (They don’t have the audacity to trademark or copyright it, though!) Take the 1990s term “booyah”. In 2017,  there are now businesses named Booyahboxco, Eatbooyah, and Booyah Games .

If you can’t think of any, here’s a refresher of some urban phrases we now see in mainstream media:

  • Get Your (insert any word here ) On
  • Black People Be Like… Memes
  • Netflix-and-Chill
  • B.A.E
  • G.O.A.T.
  • Boom
  • AF
  • SMDH
  • (insert any person here) Clapped Back At…
  • (insert any person here) “destroyed” (insert any person here)
  • We Got Your Back

You might have noticed most of these terms began on Facebook or Twitter. Nowhere is the effect of Black youth on contemporary culture seen more powerfully than on Twitter with it’s creative memes and tongue-in-cheek hashtags. Morgan Baila of the website Refinery29, has even made it her job to  help non- Black Americans keep up with the newest viral lingo

For a longer list of phrases created by Black American teens on Twitter then copied extensively by other Twitter users, journalists and advertisers worldwide, click here.


Twitter Slowly Eradicates Black Culture

When I learned that the now 19-year-old creator of the term “on fleek” had  recently started a GoFundMe page to create a comapny that would legally bear the name I was so proud. Kayla Newman, also known as Peaches Monroee, invented the term in 2014 and hasn’t seen a bit of profit from the numerous companies and individuals that use the term to sell their products and services. Her new commitment to protecting her brand may inspire other Black teens to do the same and perhaps spark the preservation of Black American cultural expression. A lot of Black teens post creative thoughts and memes on social media platforms like Twitter, innocently wanting to be heard by a worldwide audience at their fingertips. But, they don’t take the time to think about what they are losing when they’re sharing…and they shouldn’t have to. Twitter was not meant to be used as platform to give away slogan ideas to hungry corporations with talentless advertising executives. (Yes, I just insulted the advertising industry.) It was a platform meant for individuals to share their thoughts while developing their own personal brand and following while retaining ownership of said thoughts, hence the function of retweeting. (Technically, you could copy and paste someone else’s tweet without acknowledging them as the writer, but most of us have better manners than that 😉


Most Chocolate and Tea Comes from Africa

Hersheys, Nestle, Cadbury. Dove, Lindt, Guylian, Ritter. Are any of these brands providers of your favorite chocolates? While Ritter is German, Nestle and Lindt are Swiss, Cadbury is British, Dove is American, and Guylian is Belgian , Nowhere in its 100+ year history, does Ritter acknowledge where it began sourcing its cocoa. On its site’s historical timeline, there is mention of a farm it started in 2008 in Nicaragua to participate in the “fair-trade” trend, but where did it get its cocoa prior to Nicaragua? The company began in 1912! Let’s just say whatever happened 100 years before 2008 was not so fair-trade…and it might have happened in Africa. Although the cacao tree from which cocoa beans come from was first discovered in South America, by the 1700s European traders brought one of the trees to West Africa and now African countries are the biggest exporters of cocoa.

Bloggers like Tsh Oxenreider and Beth of Bambootique.com are trying to shed light on the cruel forms of labor used to bring cocoa to the rest of the world and I appreciate them for it.  I’d also love to see more major companies including the name of the country they sourced their cocoa from like we see often with coffee companies. 

I can’t imagine the forms of labor used to harvest tea leaves but it always amazes me that the so-called English and Irish Breakfast Teas are staples in so many African homes. These teas are manufactured in England and Ireland but consist of tea leaves that actually come from Africa and India. I guess the British empire is not so willing to share power by forcing tea companies to change the name to “Ceylon, Assam, Darjeeling, and Kenyan Tea” or “Empirialist Tea”.  That would destroy the Twinnings brand forever!


What To Do About It

As Easter approaches and the demand for chocolate reaches its seasonal high, keep this article in mind. In terms of food, what supportive role are you playing in the profiteering of companies who don’t give credit to where they draw their resources? In terms of the Internet, might you need a lawyer to protect your cultural brands from corporate interests? Honestly, most of us are too lazy to care, but we should. The repercussions on our heritage are crucial and therefore credit matters. It makes sure that the world know that we were here and this is the impact we made.


Next, look for Part 2 on cultural appropriation and branding. It gets deeper.


READ: Cultural Appropriation and Branding Part 2

Mutiyat Ade-Salu
Mutiyat Ade-Salu is the contributing editor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She is also an actress, vocalist, writer, and budding entrepreneur. The playwright of Sunny Came Home and the creator of #FirstGenIAm, Miutiyat was named 2016’s Miss Black New York Coed. Follow her on Twitter @tiaadetweets.
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