- Black History Month is an excellent opportunity for brands to celebrate and honour the contributions of Black Americans to our society and culture.
- Our media analysis around this year’s Black History Month found that It’s essential to amplify diverse voices rather than push your brand while avoiding product-centred campaigns.
- We also found that brands should start well beforehand and use BHM just to highlight what they’ve already done while being careful of how their political donations can cause a backlash on social media.
Black History Month, which takes place during February in the US, is an opportunity for brands to showcase some inspired diversity-centered campaigns.
But, every year, there are brands that do it wrong and come under fire for performative activism, as they launch campaigns with the sole purpose of increasing their own brand awareness, rather than true support of Black communities. But there are also brands that have got it right and have won more than just brand love in the process.
To see how brands can nail Black History Month, we analysed 1,905 English-language articles about the initiative, published in February. Here are our main findings:
1. Amplify diverse voices rather than your brand
It’s essential to amplify diverse voices rather than using Black History Month as an opportunity to push your brand. Don’t treat it as an opportunity to extract value from your customers; treat it as an opportunity to add value to a conversation.
PR and comms teams can authentically celebrate Black History Month by highlighting the contributions and accomplishments of Black individuals and communities throughout history. They can also feature Black voices and perspectives in their advertising campaigns and use the month as an opportunity to educate their audience about Black history and culture.
This is how tech brands did it this year, thereby securing the largest share of voice for their industry in the media debate:
For example, Spotify attracted media attention by launching Frequency Zine, a social series focusing on dynamic artists who embody the boundless future of Black music. The series highlights six Black artists across genre-specific playlists, including Indie, Dance/Electronic, Rock, Pop and more.
Meanwhile, TikTok unveiled its first-ever Visionary Voices list. The app highlighted 15 personalities across three different categories (Creators, Industry Disruptors and Small Business Owners) in order to shine a light on their impact on the community and overall culture.
2. Start beforehand and use BHM to highlight what you’ve already done
The best campaigns in any value-driven strategy are those that are not created just for a certain occasion but rather highlight what the brand has been doing as a whole.
For instance, a number of streamers and stations offered special Black History Month fare – and that’s all a good thing – but the best of them offer a diversity of programming all year long.
Disney is a good example of how you might do it right. But it’s also a good example of a streamer that has access to a multiverse of content that naturally features a diversity of people. It’s important to note that the company did not wait until Black History Month to launch its “Celebrate Black Stories” collection, but with the advent of BHM, it opted to remind viewers that they had these stories packaged and ready to go.
This is what made Disney the most influential company in the debate.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
The company also recently shut down a Song of the South-based water ride at Disneyland in California to make way for a refurbishment into a new ride showcasing the world of Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Some self-described superfans complain about these moves, but they are largely outvoted by superfans who enjoy diversity in cartoons that mimics the diversity they see in real life.
Showcasing culturally-relevant stories for Black History Month – and making sure those stories and collections existed prior to BHM – shows a kind of long-term commitment to storytelling that more companies should embrace.
3. Avoid being product-centred
While Disney got praise, Apple’s Black History Month campaign was slammed as “tone deaf,” especially in the wake of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols last month.
“Good morning to everyone except Apple, which pushed me this notification this morning,” TikToker Tamika Turner, who goes by @prettycritical on the app, said in a clip that has clocked 20,000 views since it was posted. She showed a photo of her Apple Watch, which displayed a “Unity Challenge” message: “Let’s come together to honour Black history. Earn this Unity award by closing your Move Ring seven days in a row during February.” Closing your Move ring means meeting your fitness goals.
“It’s unbelievable and unacceptable that, especially in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ murder, the only thing Apple has to say about honouring Black people and Black history is, ‘Use our product, maybe lose a little weight,’” Turner said in the video. “I mean, c’mon.”
In the comments section of Turner’s viral clip, others also criticised Apple’s campaign. “Tell me you have no Black Americans in your marketing dept.,” one user chided. “Lose weight to end racism was not an approach I thought I’d ever hear,” quipped someone else.
The reaction against Apple is a good example of how product-centred campaigns in value marketing can cause a significant backlash. When the core of the campaign is to urge consumers to use a product rather than shine a light on societal issues outside the company, the risk of being perceived as tone-deaf is very real.
One of the main media stories in our research sample was that political activists in Florida have condemned the “hypocrisy” of large corporations that use Black History Month to denounce racism while donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state’s rightwing governor, Ron DeSantis, who has imposed limits on how race and racism can be taught in Florida schools.
DeSantis has sought to position himself on the frontlines of American “culture wars”, as he considers a 2024 bid for the White House and tries to outflank former president Donald Trump, the only official well-known candidate so far.
Widely-covered research by the Center for Political Accountability, a non-profit organisation that tracks corporate political spending, showed that companies like AT&T, Comcast, Disney, DoorDash, General Motors and Walmart donated directly and indirectly to the 2022 re-election campaign of DeSantis – a move that almost all commentators condemned.
In this case, companies were trying to engage in politics as usual but consumers and shareholders are recognising the change in the cultural norms around political engagement. They want to see companies taking proactive stances to back up their values with action and then who they engage with when it comes to politics.
In this regard, PR and comms teams shouldn’t worry about the threat of losing support or favour with certain politicians. They should be focused on the consumers who have built these publicly held corporations to where they currently are right now with the scale that they have. Studies show that consumers are more willing to boycott brands, and would-be employees are more likely to reject opportunities at companies that do not align with their values.
5. Use social media to be seen as an ally to the Black community
Brands should leverage social media channels to shine a light on those with a limited social media reach. By spotlighting changemakers, activists and other key players in the Black community, your organisation will transition from being a company that celebrates Black History Month and to being seen as an ally and partner in the Black community.
For example, Disney‘s aforementioned approach to highlighting Black talent made it the most prominent company not only in traditional media but also on Twitter.
Another good example from our research sample was Hulu, which engaged talent to spotlight Black artists by “giving them their flowers.” Throughout February, Hulu’s social media channels were featuring videos of accomplished Black artists in entertainment “giving flowers” to those who have guided and inspired them throughout their careers.
Overall, brands must ensure that their social media content is authentic, respectful, and focused on promoting Black history and culture. By using social media to raise awareness and celebrate the contributions of Black people, brands can help promote a more equitable and inclusive society.