Dear Marketers: Don’t Profit From Juneteenth

Avoid cultural blunders like Walmart's Juneteenth ice cream and learn how to celebrate appropriately

Brandweek will feature live discussions with marketing pros at ULTA Beauty, Converse, UPS and more. Meet us in Miami Sept. 11–14 to boost your business and elevate your brand.

It was only a year ago that President Joe Biden signed legislation to establish Juneteenth (June 19) as a new federal holiday, commemorating the end of slavery. And in the span of one year, it didn’t take long for some brands to see Juneteenth as a way to make money.

Dollar Tree began selling headwraps and a host of Juneteenth party supplies. The social media backlash was swift, letting the retailer know that they also used the wrong colors—the official colors of the Juneteenth flag are red, white and blue. Dollar Tree quietly removed all of its social media posts, never issuing an apology.

Walmart’s “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream,” along with Juneteenth-themed party supplies, also sparked huge social media backlash. The label on the red velvet-flavored ice cream read: “Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.”

Walmart did issue an apology, saying: “Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence. However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.” It was reported that Walmart associates were throwing out the ice cream and it was no longer available for purchase.

As we honor Juneteenth this year, here are three important lessons marketers must understand.

Understand why it’s performative and disrespectful

For those of us on a journey to be an ally to the Black community, it’s important to understand the why. When brands go viral for the harm they have caused, it’s too easy to scroll on by and move on to the next headline. We must take a moment to educate ourselves on perspectives and lived experiences that are not our own.

“What Walmart did was performative, disrespectful, offensive and exploitative,” says Lisa Hurley, Linked Inclusion editor-at-large. “It is a disrespectful attempt to co-opt and profit from a holiday whose foundation is steeped in the trauma of slavery.”

Hurley also points out the trademark symbol right after the word Juneteenth. The application was filed a few months after Juneteenth became a federal holiday, which Hurley says is an indication that there was preplanning involved to profit off Juneteenth.

Understand how this happened

By understanding how this might have happened, we as marketers can review how we are leading our own teams. “It doesn’t matter how many people are involved if none of those people have a personal connection to the cultural significance of the event,” says Kimberly Lee Minor, Bandier chief commercial officer and Bumbershoot CEO. “I’ve been at tables where my voice wasn’t given the same value as my other colleagues.”

Walmart’s apology also leaves many wondering if they understand the impact felt by the Black community. There was a missed opportunity to share what the company plans to do differently and how they plan to revisit internal processes.

This is an important moment to be humble and ask for help. Bring in experts like Abenaa Hayes, founder and CEO, Elysee Consulting; Kim Crowder of Kim Crowder Consulting and Elizabeth Leiba, founder of Black History & Culture Academy, to have an intervention and increase the cultural competency and awareness of your teams.

Understand how to celebrate and honor appropriately

To celebrate and honor Juneteenth appropriately, budget matters to ensure this isn’t a performative act or a way for a company to generate profit off this federal holiday. Hurley recommended donating to nonprofit organizations like the ACLU, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Innocence Project.

Minor recommended that if you are going to create a new product, collaborate with a Black creator. As many consumers on social media pointed out, there was a missed opportunity to elevate and support Creamalicious, a Black-owned ice cream brand founded by Liz Rogers, already sold in Walmart.

Ensure you don’t forget, and actively include, the community you are looking to celebrate and honor.