Quebec-based Ungava Gin needs to reassess its offensive marketing strategy

Sep 14 2016, 5:23 pm

I really love a good Gin & Tonic. Ask my friends and my local bar – it’s my go-to drink. I’ve tried a wide assortment of local and international brands and have enjoyed drinking Quebec-based Ungava Gin for some years now. It has a wonderful aroma and flavour, a distinct colour, and I particularly enjoy supporting a Quebec product. It made me feel like I was doing my part.

I’m not so sure anymore.

This morning I came across a troublesome CBC report accusing the gin maker of culturally appropriating and profiting off the Inuit culture. My first thought, before reading the piece, was that someone was probably complaining about the name Ungava. While I didn’t know anything about the marketing strategy, a closer look clearly revealed that it uses Inuit imagery, syllabics (often as exotic product decoration, read: gibberish) and words to promote its products.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, that a for-profit company has had the dubious honour of appropriating a name or image they neither understand nor truly appreciate in order to present a more “exotic” or homegrown image to make some cash. Anyone remember Canadian fashion duo DSquared2’s highly offensive and racially insensitive “DSquaw” collection? (Side note: I’m waiting for Kanye to come out with his “Cracker” line next season.)

My main issue here, however, isn’t really with the name of the product or its website that spends an inordinate amount of length extolling the beauty and traditions of the Ungava tundra. It’s slightly disingenuous, and probably grating to the Inuit community, but what marketing campaign isn’t disingenuous? The owners clearly wanted to distinguish the brand from all others and made a clear decision to focus on the Canadian North, and sell the “celestial light show of the aurora borealis” and the “ice floes that drift silently towards the open water.” All marketing sells a beautiful lie, and why should Ungava be any different?

No, my issue is with their marketing strategy, their culturally insensitive branding, their promotional events, and, most importantly, their inability to react to the justified criticism.

Some of that harshest criticism comes courtesy of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Montreal-Inuk visual artist, Stephen Agluvak, who’s interviewed in the above-mentioned CBC article, has also taken Ungava repeatedly to task for their use of Inuk cartoon characters as caricatures and mascots.

“We’re like cartoon elves,” exclaims on his Facebook page, while sharing the image below. Look at how happy and cute those little magical creatures are!

Ungava Gin/Facebook

Ungava Gin/Facebook

“Cultural appropriation” is one of those hot-button issues that many people don’t have patience for. They roll their eyes and mutter under their breaths about how “everyone’s offended by everything these days”. Those people need to sit down. We’re talking about a $12-million company that not only insults the Inuit culture with its tone-deaf marketing campaign, but by all accounts doesn’t even share any of its profits with the Northern community it’s so fond of appropriating. Isn’t that worth pointing out?

Another important point, no one seems to be able to find out whether any actual Inuk are employed by the company. Ungava has said yes, but refuses to give out any more details.

Isn’t it fair to expect that, if a company exploits the imagery of the North, that some of those profits should trickle down by providing jobs and money for the community? Or are the Inuk only good as cartoonish images on your advertising?

People are fallible, and so are marketing campaigns. The trick is to be open to criticism, listen, and improve your marketing strategy when confronted with a negative reaction. Don’t get your back up against the wall, don’t insinuate with your response that “only that one meddlesome person has complained so far”, and certainly don’t insult a community that has legitimate reasons to be offended and disturbed by the way you’re portraying them and their culture with your silence on the issue.

Aboriginal people have long been dehumanized and seen as inferior. Only recently are Canadians starting to open their eyes to how they have been treated and how they are still affected by forms of institutionalized racism and inequality, which disproportionately affects high rates of drug abuse and alcoholism.

Many Aboriginal communities still don’t have access to clean drinking water, housing shortages persist, and even with a shameful legacy of Residential Schools, their education system remains underfunded and sub-par.

While I don’t necessarily ascribe racism or ill will to the owners of Ungava Gin, I do feel their reluctance to address this particular issue is a special kind of slap in the face to a community that has already endured – and continues to endure — so much negative stereotyping and racism.

You want to truly celebrate and represent the “Spirit of the Canadian North”, as you proudly proclaim on your website? Perhaps start by respecting it.