The Silence From Brands Not Taking a Stand During Black History Month Is Deafening

Go beyond celebration and do the work to dismantle systemic racism

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Black History Month 2021 has proven to be disappointing, but what’s more disheartening is what it indicates about the months ahead.

It’s been nine months since the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Brands tripped over themselves to get into the fray and profess their dedication to diversity and inclusion. While it was great to see brands join the fight for social justice, it’s become painfully apparent that many jumped into the movement while it was trendy. This month serves as a reminder of the lack of authenticity we all feared.

According to research, of all the actions and messages a brand could support, highlighting or selling merchandise from Black creators was most important to Black Americans—above educating consumers about Black history, organizing events and donating to Black causes. Consumers of all races want more than an elevating Black voices campaign. When asked about brands that only speak up during Black History Month, 81% of Black Americans and 65% of all Americans said they thought more negatively of the brand. While an annual BHM campaign was once enough to satisfy a brand’s diversity requirements, consumers today demand more and will vote brands that don’t deliver down with their wallets.

A handful of brands are getting it right. They have had continuous campaigns prior to and since June of 2020 to drive sustained action and used BHM to amplify those efforts. Building off of its commitment to fighting racial injustice and inequities through adjustments to employee hiring and pay practices, addressing the opportunity gap and democratizing consumer access to wellness, Peloton’sWe See You” campaign lifted up Black voices this Black History Month while doubling down on its financial investment to combat racism.

Ulta Beauty acknowledges that “The Black experience can’t be confined to just one month, but we’re using the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the influence and impact of the community.” Beyond highlighting and celebrating Black beauty industry founders and entrepreneurs, Ulta Beauty committed $25 million on an initiative that would double the Black-owned brands on store shelves by the end of the year, feature more Black women in media campaigns and expand employee training to fight unconscious bias.

Elevating Black voices is critical, but brands must go beyond celebration and do the work to dismantle systemic racism and inequities. Black bodies are targets of police brutality; Black women’s health is being undermined; the Black community is disproportionately suffering from the pandemic and will continue to be left behind as the world reopens unless more corporate changemakers stand up and fight for the consumers they claim to support.

For as many brands trying to get it right, there are even more staying silent—or delivering messages that scream how disingenuous they really are. Despite its role in permanently benching Colin Kaepernick and refusing to take a stand prior to 2020, the NFL released its “Inspire Change” commercial during the 2021 Super Bowl filled with players kneeling and anti-racism messages. It ended with the statement that the league is “committing $250 million to help end systemic racism.” The NFL could have used the opportunity to acknowledge its mistakes. Instead, it doubled down and now will continue losing the support of fans who have had enough.

For brands struggling with where to start, or how to continue, it’s important to note that 85% of Black Americans feel advertising perpetuates racial stereotypes. But consumers want to hear brand opinions more than marketers think.

As brands contemplate their path forward, they must consider the following:

  • Don’t attempt to represent Black voices without having Black voices in the room.
  • Don’t try to boil the ocean. Brands aren’t built overnight and neither are brands that want to be allies.
  • Focus on one or two tangible actions your brand can take that will have legitimate impact.
  • Keep it going! Don’t stop with one campaign or wait until Juneteenth to take a stand.
  • And, most importantly, don’t stop just because it’s hard.

Yes, the path forth is bumpy and full of potholes. But staying silent is a conscious choice and a move that consumers will long remember.