Every February, brands suddenly find they have something to say (or sell) to Black History Month on social media.
But after a year of protests against racial justice and more companies than ever speaking out on social and political issues, brands are under pressure to get Black History Month 2021 right. It has become common for brands to participate in Black History Month, but these efforts are often perceived only as performative activism.
I’m not looking forward to Black History Month because we’re bombarded with more performative activism for 28 days, then back to the regular program
– “Helby” (@_shelbyparis) January 15, 2021
Brands need to think about how to stand up for blacks, culture and achievement 365 days a year – not just 28 days. Black History Month 2021 follows a year in which brands express their support for Black Lives Matter and advocate for positive change following the death of George Floyd. This year, you can guarantee that consumers will be watching to see if the same brands that have spoken out stay true to their word or if they have already moved on.
The recognition of Black History Month means brands need to go beyond marketing messages that preach solidarity but offer little action. If brands are serious about celebrating the black community, that commitment must extend to all aspects of the business and become part of the fabric of brand culture.
First things first, what is the purpose of Black History Month?
Black History Month celebrates the contributions of black Americans to society and raises awareness of the history of black Americans. It started when Carter G. Woodson, an American historian, became frustrated with the underrepresentation of blacks in conversations that shaped American history.
A theme is applied every year to attract the public’s attention. This year’s theme will focus on “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”. Black History Month takes place in February in the US and Canada and is recognized in October in the UK.
Realize black history 365 days a year
While they may start with the best of intentions, brands need to consider the ramifications of their celebrations and realize that black history doesn’t end on March 1st.
Take a moment to understand your brand’s role in the conversation, ask who will benefit from your Black History Month ideas, and consider how those ideas can become part and parcel of brand culture. Kristen Rice, senior data analyst and head of Black @ Sprout, reminds brands that black history is still being written today.
“For brands looking to celebrate Black History Month, it starts with understanding that this is more than a month,” says Rice. “Not only is black history a thing of the past as we often treat it, but that story is really happening now in the organizations we all work for. As we celebrate Black History as a month, brands must continue on the path of building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive system that they promised and blacks always celebrate. “
Black History Month is not an opportunity to commercialize Black History-themed items or use Black Culture for clout. There’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and companies that cross that line risk backlash from the very communities they seek to uplift.
This is the time for the black community to shine
To avoid being viewed as insincere or opportunistic during Black History Month 2021, brands need to prioritize blacks and their stories in everything they do. Cassandra Blackburn, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Sprout Social, encourages brands to keep Black History Month’s mission at the center of their strategies.
“As brands plan to celebrate diverse communities for Black History Month and others, it’s important that they approach their campaigns with authenticity, empathy, and cultural intelligence,” says Blackburn. “Focus your campaign on advancing the mission and purpose of the celebration by taking the opportunity to honor the achievements of black Americans.”
Blackburn names Target as a brand they admire for their work in celebrating Black History Month. “Through their partnership with the African American Business Council, an employee resource group, [Target] developed a campaign called Black Beyond Measure, which expands success stories and celebrates blackness. The campaign features products from black-owned companies (which are available in their stores year-round) as well as black entrepreneurs and members of the Black Target team. “
Centering black stories starts with brands taking the time to meet their audiences where they are and showing that they are truly listening to the black community. Keyaira Lock, a Twitter Next Brand Planner and co-chair of Blackbirds, Twitter’s staff resource group for African Americans, has this advice to pass on to marketers considering their strategies for Black History Month.
“In order to authentically connect and build trust, brands must continually identify natural ways to connect their brand purpose with moments that are important to the black community,” says Lock. “Understanding this requires increasing a brand’s cultural intelligence by honestly listening to the black stories and learning the nuances of their desires, dreams, fears and frustrations in order to find mutually beneficial ways to incorporate your brand thoughtfully. “
1 / 👋🏽🧵 # BlackTwitter, see you. We hear you. It happens: On March 3rd and 4th we are hosting #BlackTwitterLive – an event to honor and celebrate the impact and influence of this incredible community. And we bring it straight to your TL with conversations sent from @TwitterLive.
– God-is Rivera (@GodisRivera) February 18, 2020
And while there is no gold standard for brands celebrating Black History Month, Lock sees this as an opportunity for brands to grow and prepare for future success. “On [action is] look inside out to think about what [brands] can do internally and externally to support the Black Community. In-house work enables brands to shine authentically on any cultural occasion as it suits their brand purpose and who they really are. “
If brands want to speak, they have to be ready to act
Accountability usually follows a statement of solidarity, and brands need to be willing to show how they back up their words with visible action. Ty Heath, director of the B2B institute at LinkedIn, warns consumers not to rush to call brands that have the conversation but don’t go the way.
“Saying that your brand does better without action doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” says Heath. “While many brands have shown support for social justice issues, building trust requires sustained investment – not just during Black History Month.”
She references Ben & Jerry’s as a brand that has figured out how to authentically deal with their activism. “Ben & Jerry’s made it part of their DNA to speak out against issues of social justice. The journey begins with an internal conversation about uncomfortable topics that we often avoid. To support your growth, incorporate different voices and core values into the structure and culture of your company. “
To achieve justice, we don’t just need thoughts and prayers – we need education and action. The thread below offers a few opportunities to learn more about our country’s history, its impact on the present, and the underlying conditions that led to the assassination of George Floyd. pic.twitter.com/GYUcvb4w0N
– Ben & Jerry’s (@benandjerrys) June 5, 2020
Brands like Ben & Jerry’s don’t just keep their promises. They also take big, bold positions aimed at moving the needle towards racial equality. The actions a brand takes outside of the company can even have an impact on society.
“As marketers, we understand that brands build and influence our societies’ cultures,” said Deserrie Perez, strategic marketer and co-head of the Black Inclusion Network at LinkedIn. “I deeply admire brands that have been unapologetically ambitious in their efforts to promote diversity, equality and inclusion.”
Perez finds inspiration in brands like Salesforce, American Express, Blackrock and Microsoft. Says Perez, “These brands have made important advances in hiring diverse storytellers who bring unique and authentic stories about the black diaspora to life by addressing real-world issues that affect our communities.”
Black history is more than a moment
Black History Month 2021 is an opportunity for brands to show consumers what they have learned after a year of social unrest and protests for racial justice. Posting a statement on social media is the bare minimum and consumers are ready to hold brands accountable for their words. Supporting the Black Community is an ongoing commitment, with most of the work being done offline.
As the brands prepare for their February campaigns, keep in mind that black history is more than a trend. Approach Black History Month with authenticity and action, but also think about how you can promote black communities and culture year-round.
Make sure your business efforts are real and sustainable by prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all parts of your business operations. Read on to learn how brands can go beyond diversity statements and incorporate DEI into their strategies for long-term success.