Puma wrong-footed in National Day misunderstanding

Puma's decision to decorate shoes with the national colours shows a typical lack of cultural understanding.

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Over 25 years in the field of media communications I have seen many initiatives, seemingly based on innovative ideas and professional marketing, come to nothing. In multinational companies' efforts to connect with local markets, it is often the cultural engagement that determines success.

While global business is about maximising profits in faraway lands, it also has to address the needs of the local market. Multinational corporations are not only selling products and services, but also diffusing an array of cultural values that need to marry with local traditions.

That point has been clear in the recent debate about limited-edition sport shoes released by the German company Puma. The trainers, displaying the colours of the UAE's flag in commemoration of National Day, were announced and then just as quickly withdrawn as the company realised its error.

Even before Puma apologised for the product launch of SpeedCat shoes, it was obvious that the company meant well by its efforts to honour National Day. Yet the incident provoked a question about how multinational corporations see their businesses. Do they see beyond selling products to passive consumers to socially conscious people who find fulfilment in their own national and cultural symbols?

For westerners who see shoes as no more than clothing, the uproar over Puma's trainers might have been perplexing. But the traditional view in Middle Eastern societies holds shoes in low esteem. Because of their physical contact with the ground and the unclean, shoes are seen as vessels of impurity.

Hence, Muslims are required to take off their shoes before they step into a mosque - in many cultures, etiquette dictates that guests remove their shoes before entering someone's house. In the Gulf, shoes are not as lofty as the ghotra or the iqal. In Arab traditions, ghotras and iqals are symbols of pride and honour, whereas shoes clearly are not.

Shoes carry an element of added threat in an argument as well. Most of us will remember instances when shoe attacks figure into moments of high political drama. In 2008, there was the shoe-throwing incident in Baghdad when the Iraqi journalist Muntadar Al Zaidi, a reporter with the Cairo-based network Al Baghdadia Television, hurled his shoes at the then-US president George W Bush during a press conference with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Al Zaidi could have used his notebook, mobile phone or even his pen to express his anger, but he chose to throw his shoes because he wanted to be as offensive as possible. The incident inspired similar subsequent attacks, but of course the Americans have not always been the target. In 2003, during the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis threw shoes at the statue of Saddam Hussein in Paradise Square.

While Puma may have strayed on to sensitive territory, it is not the first incident of a multinational company entangled in an intercultural controversy. Three years ago, the sportswear manufacturer Adidas withdrew its Muhammad Ali clothing line from stores in the UAE after complaints from some customers that the legendary boxer's brand appeared to use the Prophet Mohammed's name for commercial gain.

At that time, I wrote in The National that companies should show more sensitivity to local sentiment when they design and market products. It's surprising how much difference a small change could make: if Puma had put UAE colours on a T-shirt or a cap, it would have been feted rather than embarrassed.

In an increasingly globalised world, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings. As global business operations put millions of dollars into developing products and marketing, they need to make a similar investment in cultural engagement.

Muhammad Ayish is a media researcher and commentator based in Canada