Authentically Inauthentic: Black History Month Marketing...Don’t F@&! It Up!
Ashton Beck | Director of Social Media

February is the shortest month of the year and maybe your team has decided to celebrate Black History Month with a campaign aimed at the African American community. Good intention, yes, but here’s a spoiler alert: It’s a cliche move. 

Every year Black History Month rolls around and brands try to endear themselves to diverse audiences by working to appear inclusive and supportive of the African American community. But is it real? Is it authentic or authentically inauthentic?   

Celebrating Black History Month in marketing means taking the time to plan, develop and execute an authentic campaign that positively highlights African Americans and the multiple identities, backgrounds and lifestyles we represent. 

Here are a few tips to make your campaign make an impact:

Dig deep. Trying to be more inclusive and show diversity is a great idea. But if your company finds yourself only prioritizing African American representation in your ads one month per year, that’s not OK. If you really want to celebrate Black culture and your African American customers, look at developing deep, genuine relationships with these audiences and do it throughout the year.

Alternatively, here’s how to build a kick-ass campaign that really means something:

Recognize your bias. Our brains are hard-wired to make assumptions about people we see. Everyone has biases. That’s why it’s so important to understand how we’ve been shaped by messages from our families and society, and how that informs our marketing. We must understand why we think the things we do, and then learn from each other and our differences. Within the DE & I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) community, we call this process of discovering the difference in what we’ve been taught and what we really believe the “Cycle of Socialization.”

From birth, we all learn how to act, think and behave based on the things around us. Friends, family, schools, extracurricular teams, jobs, communities, media and more. Based on those messages, actions and behavior we begin to think/act/believe certain ideas toward others. 

When asked to build a campaign for a specific audience, like African Americans, most marketers tend to rely on third-party assumptions and our own personal thoughts/beliefs without every really understanding a different audience. Not asking questions to check our biases is a marketing blunder in the making. 

Do your homework. Graduate from the “Black History 101” class, and learn something new.

Where can you start? Build authentic connections to individuals within various communities and have conversations (you’ll tend to find a lot of history and perspectives you won’t find in a book). Go to your local library, museum or look online for articles, blogs and other resources.

To get you started, here are some basic details about Black History Month:

1915

Dr. Carter G.Woodson establishes the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNHL) (source)

1920

Dr. Woodson and his fraternity brothers of Omega Psi Phi created Negro History and Literature Week (later renamed Negro Achievement Week) (source)

1926

Dr. Woodson sent out a press release designating February Negro History Week

1940s

“Blacks in West Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month”. (source)

Late 1960s

“Young blacks on college campuses became increasingly conscious of links with Africa, Black History Month replaced Negro History Week at a quickening pace.” (source)

1976

“A year after President Ford issued a message about Black History Week; his “commemoration of black history in the United States was expanded by ASALH to Black History Month, also known as African American History Month…” (source)

1986

1986 – Congress passed Public Law 99-244 (PDF, 142KB) which designated February 1986 as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” This law noted that February 1, 1986 would “mark the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History.” (source)

Since 1996

“Presidents have issued annual proclamations for National African American History Month” (source)

Get Intersectional. Not sure what that means? Bring the people to the table who look like, sound like, act like and could be your potential audience. Don’t get stuck on roadblocks filled with groupthink because your team lacks diversity.

If these voices don’t exist within your organization or team...FIND THEM. The only true way to create authentic campaigns is to ensure those voices are heard and have a seat at the decision-making table.  

Be wrong. If you don’t understand why a campaign idea doesn’t work or shouldn’t be executed, just ask someone within the targeted audience. Be genuine in wanting to know and most people will provide honest feedback. (We’ll get to why this is important next.)

Ask questions. Asking is better than making assumptions. You don’t want to end up like Pepsi & Kendall Jenner in 2017 (Pepsi did apologize and removed the commercial). This insensitive incident will never outlive the marketing history books. And they’re not the only big brands getting things wrong. Just last February, Gucci released a balaclava sweater that the Internet said resembled blackface (Gucci also apologized and took the sweater off the market).  

The question still stands, how would these ads be different if they asked the RIGHT questions to the RIGHT people? It’s safe to bet the outcome would have been way different.

Support the community. Build relationships, don’t just sell products. That means finding ways to work with (not exploiting) Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. These communities are looking for trustworthy companies that truly understand them, year-round. 

Don’t stop on March 1. Representation year around is a major factor when trying to reach communities of color. According to a 2019 Adobe survey, 34 percent of U.S. consumers stopped supporting a brand because it didn’t represent their identity (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) in its advertising. 

What does that mean for you? To get a better return on your investment, new customers, and increased sales, include African American communities in your long-term marketing plan. The more loyalty and trustworthiness your brand shows the community the more it’ll give it back. And the rule still stands, it’s easier to retain a customer than build a new one.

As February draws near, take a look back over your strategy, toss it out, and start over. It’s never too late to get things right.

Ashton Beck

With more than a decade of experience directing and implementing social media strategy for a variety of organizations, Ashton brings deep knowledge and strategic thinking to brands looking to effectively manage their digital relationships and reputation. He methodically works with our partners, taking them from social campaign development through execution, while evaluating each tactic in real-time and continuously working to evolve programatic effectiveness.

Leveraging his background in consumer relationship management in leading social strategy for a cross-section of large and small brands ranging from startups to global spirits brands, Ashton’s practical experience and Masters of Business Administration provide him with not only the perspective of the inner-workings of organizations, but the ability to understand consumer needs.

A believer in the work-hard, play-hard mantra, when not hanging out in the Twittersphere, Ashton enjoys volunteering at Sylvan Learning Centers, reading and being active outdoors.

Ashton’s MBA is from Webster University and he earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts and Communications from the University of Missouri- St. Louis.

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