Why Do Most Brands Stay Clear of Black History Month?

Social jus­tice, cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty, and grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty work are best prac­ticed all year round.

Pat Hong By Pat Hong from Linkdex. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Mar­keters cap­i­tal­ized on some known moments in Feb­ru­ary (e.g., the Super Bowl, Valen­tine’s Day, the Oscars, the pre­miere of “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and even some unex­pect­ed moments in real-time (think lla­mas and a rag­ing debate over #The­Dress). But last month also marked Black His­to­ry Month, a long estab­lished ini­tia­tive that seeks to raise aware­ness and encour­age pos­i­tive con­ver­sa­tions about black Amer­i­can his­to­ry. 2015 has been her­ald­ed by some com­men­ta­tors to be the year brands take a pub­lic stance on social issues such as racial jus­tice, gen­der equal­i­ty, and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty. So are brands doing enough to engage such top­ics, and build pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with eth­nic and minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties?

Black His­to­ry Month has been estab­lished for sev­er­al decades, and seeks to encour­age ben­e­fi­cial con­ver­sa­tions about his­to­ry and race in the U.S. How­ev­er, the annu­al obser­vance is not with­out its crit­ics. Mor­gan Free­man famous­ly argued that he did­n’t want Black His­to­ry rel­e­gat­ed to just one month, say­ing “I don’t want a black his­to­ry month. Black his­to­ry is Amer­i­can his­to­ry.”

While the intent is clear­ly pro­gres­sive, there can be a ten­den­cy amongst every­one from news and media pub­lish­ers, to com­mer­cial brands and busi­ness­es, to steer clear of the top­ic.

At least among brands and mar­keters, it’s the Super Bowl and The Acad­e­my Awards that grab Feb­ru­ary head­lines.

These events cer­tain­ly have the “feel-good” fac­tor, but it’s still sur­pris­ing that Black His­to­ry Month war­rants such lit­tle atten­tion. Ini­tia­tives that raise aware­ness about his­to­ry and race serve a valu­able pur­pose in soci­ety, spark­ing con­ver­sa­tions and debate, as well as address­ing cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny that can often per­vade around sen­si­tive sub­jects, such as race in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

If brands seek to forge a sim­i­lar kind of affin­i­ty, at least in the­o­ry, Black His­to­ry Month should offer them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage in mean­ing­ful, inspir­ing con­ver­sa­tions with their audi­ences.

After all, the film indus­try has man­aged to approach the sub­ject of black his­to­ry to great acclaim and suc­cess for many years. The award win­ning, and Acad­e­my Award nom­i­nat­ed film, “Sel­ma”, is one of many films that has engaged an inspir­ing moment in black his­to­ry, revis­it­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment to cel­e­brate a moment of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that helped define the iden­ti­ty of the mod­ern Unit­ed States.

Many U.S. brands have a rich his­to­ry sup­port­ing and employ­ing black com­mu­ni­ties, and do so to this day. So why does is the cor­po­rate voice often sub­dued on the issue?

The Year Of Corporate Social Responsibility?

2015 has been tout­ed by some com­men­ta­tors as the year of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty, a year for brands to stand up for “social issues like gay mar­riage, gen­der equal­i­ty and racial jus­tice.”

Brands can expe­ri­ence sus­tain­able ben­e­fits as a result of mak­ing a stand on social issues. Writ­ing for the Guardian, Jon­ah Sachs, author and CEO of brand­ing agency Free Range Stu­dios, said “a con­tro­ver­sial pro-social stand becomes a pub­lic com­mit­ment to bet­ter behav­ior. Thus, a pro-social brand is a sus­tain­able brand.”

Black History Month: How Brands Participated

You don’t need to invent a com­pli­cat­ed mes­sage, or inge­nious slo­gans or cam­paigns to join the con­ver­sa­tion about Black His­to­ry Month.

The best cam­paigns weren’t cre­at­ed sole­ly for black audi­ences – but for every­one. They encour­aged con­ver­sa­tions about race rela­tions, cul­ture, and Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

Con­sumers expect brands to par­tic­i­pate in the con­ver­sa­tion, to show that their out­put isn’t a one-way flow of con­tent with the pur­pose of sell­ing prod­ucts, but an orga­ni­za­tion that fields respon­si­ble val­ues, and is will­ing to stand up as a cham­pi­on of social jus­tice.

Where was the bold social com­men­tary, brave con­ver­sa­tion, or inspir­ing con­tent, dur­ing black his­to­ry month? Feb­ru­ary was­n’t entire­ly absent of brands tak­ing part in Black His­to­ry Month.

Here are three exam­ples of brands that launched prod­ucts and con­tent last month, all of which high­light how con­sumer-fac­ing brands from any indus­try can engage with Black His­to­ry Month in a way that cel­e­brates the com­pa­ny’s own her­itage, cul­ture, and prod­uct.

1. McDonald’s Spread Lovin’

As part of the fast-food cor­po­ra­tion’s 365Black com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tives, McDon­ald’s pro­mot­ed a grass­roots ini­tia­tive that spread aware­ness about Black His­to­ry Month via cre­ative street art.

While the cam­paign did­n’t explore much in the way of “his­to­ry,” it did aim to raise aware­ness about Black His­to­ry Month among young audi­ences.

2. Nike’s 2015 Black History Month Collection

Frankly, any lim­it­ed edi­tion design­er sports­wear release is invari­ably met with praise. Nike’s Black His­to­ry Month Col­lec­tion effort­less­ly engaged with the sub­ject mat­ter, cel­e­brat­ing their endorse­ments with black ath­letes and their own inspi­ra­tional brand phi­los­o­phy.

Nike Tshirts 2

Nike pro­vides a great exam­ple of sus­tained engage­ment with black com­mu­ni­ties via sport – a role they take to with aplomb. As soc­cer play­er and Nike’s Black His­to­ry Month star Kevin Prince Boateng says:

We can­not afford to be indif­fer­ent or pas­sive. Ath­letes, musi­cians and busi­ness peo­ple have a spe­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty. We speak to parts of soci­ety and pierce the hearts of those peo­ple that polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions will nev­er reach.”

3. Nickelodeon – Because Of Them, We Can

Nick­elodeon com­bined the cute­ness of their tar­get audi­ence with inspi­ra­tional quotes from promi­nent black authors, poets, and pub­lic fig­ure from African-Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Sim­ple and effec­tive.

Nick­elodeon’s con­tent (per­haps the best of all three) relies on sim­ple ingre­di­ents: com­bin­ing their core audi­ence, chil­dren, with inspi­ra­tional his­tor­i­cal quotes from.

Why Year-Round Corporate Social Responsibility Matters

The great­est val­ue, one that must remain a long-term objec­tive for all con­sumer-cen­tric brands, is for orga­ni­za­tions to mod­el them­selves as respon­si­ble cor­po­ra­tions who pro­mote social jus­tice, whether it’s on the issue of race, gen­der, or any oth­er point of social equal­i­ty.

What’s more, these should ide­al­ly be part of all year round ini­tia­tives, sus­tained efforts that build on the aware­ness gen­er­at­ed dur­ing spe­cial events such as Black His­to­ry Month. Accord­ing to Mary Zer­afa, VP of Sales & Mar­ket­ing at Bri­abe Mobile, a mobile adver­tis­ing solu­tions provider with exper­tise mar­ket­ing to diverse con­sumer groups:

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot more brands rec­og­nize how impor­tant it is, espe­cial­ly when it comes to mil­len­ni­als. Mil­len­ni­als are syn­ony­mous with mul­ti­cul­tur­al, and rep­re­sent 92 per­cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion growth in the last decade. This gen­er­a­tion rep­re­sents the future of the U.S. mar­ket­place, which will account for 30 per­cent of all retail sales by 2020. It’s impor­tant when mar­ket­ing to a mul­ti­cul­tur­al audi­ence, to make sure you are reach­ing out in a mean­ing­ful way that will res­onate. Con­nect­ing with them is key to future busi­ness suc­cess.”

More than any one cam­paign, long-term, sus­tain­able cor­po­rate endeav­ors will win the life­long sup­port and advo­ca­cy of con­sumers.

Ways Brands Are Engaging Communities, Minorities

McDon­ald’s 365Black ini­tia­tive demon­strates the kind of all-year round com­mit­ment that can make a dif­fer­ence to con­sumers. 365Black’s slo­gan, “Deeply Root­ed in the Com­mu­ni­ty”, sup­ports schol­ar­ships, col­lege funds, events and awards that work at a grass­roots lev­el with­in black com­mu­ni­ties.

Gen­er­al Motors is anoth­er brand that has a his­to­ry of sus­tain­able work in pro­mot­ing black Amer­i­can his­to­ry. This year the com­pa­ny host­ed it’s ninth-annu­al Black His­to­ry Month Cel­e­bra­tion in Detroit, and since 1998, the auto­mo­bile giant has sup­port­ed vol­un­teer affin­i­ty groups, such as the Gen­er­al Motors African Ances­try Net­work (GMAAN), which con­nects and sup­ports around 2,300 employ­ees.

While some may crit­i­cize such ini­tia­tives as being “divi­sive,” in that it seg­ments cor­po­rate mes­sag­ing, it’s crit­i­cism that so often comes from a dis­tance – crit­i­cism that under­mines the incre­men­tal, prac­ti­cal pos­i­tive val­ue of grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty work. Seg­ment­ed mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tives have a role in edu­cat­ing and shar­ing the mes­sage of oth­er cul­tures.

As Pat Har­ris, McDon­ald’s Chief Diver­si­ty Offi­cer said in an inter­view with PR week: “it is anoth­er way to edu­cate all employ­ees and cus­tomers about oth­er cul­tures. I am not opposed to hav­ing seg­ment­ed mar­ket­ing.”

Should brands be doing more to pro­mote social issues and reach out to eth­nic minori­ties?

Pat Hong

Written by Pat Hong

Editor at Linkdex/Inked, Linkdex

Pat covers the SEO industry, digital marketing trends, and anything and everything around Linkdex. He also authors Linkdex's data analysis and reports, analysing the state of search in various industries.

Inked is published by Linkdex, the SEO platform of choice for professional marketers.

Discover why brands and agencies choose Linkdex

  • Get started fast with easy onboarding & training
  • Import and connect data from other platforms
  • Scale with your business, websites and markets
  • Up-skill teams with training & accreditation
  • Build workflows with tasks, reporting and alerts

Get a free induction and experience of Linkdex.

Just fill out this form, and one of our team members will get in touch to arrange your own, personalized demo.