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Why Barnes & Noble should’ve called us to work on a marketing design sprint?

For those of you who still haven’t read the news, let me sum it up: Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue sent out a press release in which they proudly informed they were going to launch sales of classic novels with new covers promoting diversity for Black History Month. The result? Barnes & Noble cancelled the launch following online backlash. My question: how can such a bad idea get released?

They wanted to release a collection of classic books with new “culturally diverse” covers. They chose twelve classic young adult novels and came up with new covers titling this editions as “Diverse Editions”.

The books were meant to hit the shelves on February 5 and were going to be displayed in the storefront of their Fifth Avenue store plus they were going to organize a huge launch event. Plot twist: the event is now cancelled.

Each title had five different culturally diverse covers to ensure:

  • Recognition
  • Representation
  • Inclusion of multiethnic backgrounds

Everything about this is wrong except wanting to tackle diversity and let me tell you why. First, race and whiteness were written and constructed in those books and it’s important to study and analyze them that way. Some of these novels such as The Secret Garden, are explicitly about colonialist racism and many are racialized.

Second, they used AI to analyze the text from 100 of the “most famous titles” searching the text to “see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters” (I am quoting from their press release). Using speech and linguistic patterns, their natural language processing algorithms accounted for the fact that when authors describe a character, they rarely outright state their race. So, they decided to “reimagine” their covers for Diverse Editions. Why use AI when you can ask a bunch of English professors to guide you and give you real literature-based feedback? The truth is books don’t explicitly describe white people as white because (surprise!) that’s was taken for granted at that time.

Also, why don’t they test their ideas? Online backlash was so, so, so predictable. Promoting inclusion and diversity is way more complex than changing book covers a bit and keep selling books by white authors with no diverse narratives. Of course people on the Internet (and in the real world too) were going to find it insulting. In fact, it is.

So, why should they do a Design Sprint? To avoid all this hustle. With a Design Sprint Barnes & Noble would have discovered that:

  • Redesigning classic book covers isn’t promoting diversity.
  • Celebrating Black History Month isn’t just marketing and aesthetics.
  • There are several other ways in which you can achieve that and have a way better response from the public.
  • There’s no need to use AI to know what classic books are about and how their characters are built. Call professionals.
  • There is literary context for assuming that the characters in these classic novels are white.
  • Erasing cultural differences is not diversity.

Test your ideas. Create prototypes. Research. You won’t lose time or money, you’ll gain efficiency, you’ll launch projects, products and services proved to be good for and accepted by your audience and you won’t have to come up with a lame statement suspending the initiative and missing the point.

Josefina Blattmann
Marketing Strategist
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