Why Do Most Brands Stay Clear of Black History Month?

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

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Marketers capitalized on some known moments in February (e.g., the Super Bowl, the Oscars) 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?

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