January 23, 2024
Building Your Brand Beyond Black History Month
Pop’N Creative’s Jessica Lane, Lori Hall have some pointers.

The time to start thinking about 2024 Black History Month campaigns was this time last year, but there are still plenty of ways to join the conversation, say Pop'N Creative's Jessica Lane Alexander and Lori Hall.

“The whole DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) conversation is really under attack,” says Lane Alexander, co-founder and head of digital content and marketing at the Atlanta-based creative agency. “We recognize that and we want to remind people that this [topic] is still a priority for your target audiences.”

There are many reasons why it's important for brands to be in the Black History Month space – primary among them is that Black buying power in the U.S. is expected to grow to nearly $2 trillion by 2025, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.

“This is of value and it's not just of value because it's a public good. It's of value because this is how your company can set itself up for growth,” Lane Alexander says.

Once brands set aside time and budget for Black History Month campaigns, they need to start thinking about how they can serve their target audience authentically, without pandering or delivering performative messages.

“Of course, you need to super serve the audience and you need to connect with that audience in a real way. But I also think it's about maintaining authenticity to your brand. How can you speak to Black consumers through the lens of what you as a brand do well?” Lane Alexander says.

For example, big-box retailer Target highlights Black-owned businesses during Black History Month with its Black Beyond Measure campaign, which runs on Target's digital and social platforms and in stores. Products from Black-owned businesses are featured on aisle end caps, while collections from such providers as House of Aama, Gee's Bend, Black Men Smile, Winnie Weston and Legendary Rootz are highlighted on Target's website. Target also runs an HBCU (Historic Black Colleges and Universities) design challenge and features the winners on its site. While Target makes a moment out of Black History Month, it works with Black-owned businesses year-round, giving them their own graphic designation to help discerning shoppers.

“I love it when brands not only take an authentic approach to their audience but an authentic approach to what they know they do best,” Lane Alexander says.

Target also has laid the groundwork to bake its Black-focused initiatives into its overall brand platform, so when Black History Month rolls around, the retailer is ready to jump into action.

Another example of a Black History Month campaign done well comes from Yelp, which added a feature to its widely used app that allows businesses to denote themselves as Black-owned.

“Yelp created a tool that actually helps people make their own decisions about which businesses they patronize and allows Black-owned businesses to become higher in search results,” says Hall, co-founder and head of creative at Pop'N Creative.

Taking that one step further, Yelp deposited $10 million with a Black-owned financial institution.

“It wasn't just that they were creating functionality within their platform, they were also creating economic improvement within the Black community that feels organic to their business model. That's a prime example of making sure that what you're doing for Black History Month is thoughtful and enhances what your brand is already doing,” Hall says.

A good example of making a Black History Month campaign feel authentic and not forced comes from Google.

“They did a campaign called Most Searched in 2020 that celebrated Black achievement. But they showed it, they didn't say it outright. It showed the ground-breaking nature of Black success in today's society versus saying ‘hey, here are some black people we want to highlight,'” Hall said.

What the “Most Searched” video also proved – with footage of such Black superstars as Beyonce, John Legend, Prince and Serena Williams – is something Hall has been asserting for a while: “What we know for sure is Black culture drives pop culture.”

That's to brands' advantage because there's a lot to grab on there. “I think brands should strive to find their own unique take on that – like how can we highlight the Black people who are driving pop culture without saying it specifically?” Hall says.

That said, brands have to start somewhere and even if they don't have their whole brand-purpose platform developed and implemented, there are fun ways to enter the conversation from where they're at right now.

“You can be light-hearted about this. It doesn't have to be super serious,” says Lane Alexander.

For example, last February dating app Bumble produced an original campaign called #LoveLetterstoBlackWomen that was produced by writer and musician Jesse Boykins III and starred actor Keith Powers. It partnered with creators and influencers to create their own #LoveLetterstoBlackWomen for their and Bumble's social platforms. It also identified real people who found their Black female partners on Bumble, and worked with them to create their own video essays to share.

The video featuring Keith Powers garnered more than 2.5 million views on Bumble's TikTok page and 56,000 views on Instagram. Another video, titled “Mosaic” and featuring the different creator videos, received more than 2.1 million views on Bumble's TikTok page and more than 17,000 views on Instagram. Creators also shared their own stories on their own pages, adding millions of views across platforms.

While brands may not be ready to jump in with both feet, they need to start somewhere, and usually a good place to start is with self-assessment and strategy.

“Brands will think of ideas on their own but we first ask them – ‘have you thought about where you sit in the culture, or what people are saying about you or how people feel about you and what you're doing?' You can't do it in a vacuum. You need to have experts in multicultural marketing who can help you think through that,” says Hall.

One big reason why brands avoid creating campaigns for Black History Month is because of their fear of being canceled – and that fear is legitimate, Lane Alexander adds.

“If you do go wrong, you step in it in a bad way. People will talk about how stupid you are and run you ragged and there are real business impacts,” Lane Alexander says. “We try to make sure people don't have to take a huge leap. I feel like brands still have opportunities to create some goodwill in the moment. Even if you don't have a full campaign, if you're showing that you're making your start and investing in the community, that's still an important way of showing up.”

“You have to make sure it's thoughtful and that you understand what's happening in society, what's going to be politically triggering, and think about those things. Not to stop you from doing it, but as a consideration on the path to finding the right idea. Those are the most critical things when you're trying to approach marketing to communities that have not traditionally been seen or celebrated,” Hall says.

Ultimately, it's better to do something small for Black History Month than nothing at all, says Lane, who doesn't want brands to sit out the month. ”I couldn't imagine a world where we wouldn't have these conversations,” she says.

For example, after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020, people posted black cubes on Instagram in support of Black Lives Matter and brands sought collaborations with Black-owned businesses and Black-owned agencies.

“Everybody wanted to support Black and as exciting as it was to reap the benefits, it was all caused by tragedy,” Hall says. “As soon as we got six months, eight months, a year into it, a lot of Black people are saying, ‘how long is this gonna last? Because you know as soon as the wave is over, they're gonna go right back and do the same things they always did.'

“We're starting to see things trend back that already. Now people aren't so nervous about not being vocal about supporting the Black community. Now people are like, ‘we have ten other priorities so the Black priorities are going to fall back to Black History Month.' That's what we're trying to push people beyond.”

Black History Month is ultimately about keeping Black-focused issues in the conversation. Pop'N Creative's Lane Alexander and Hall want creatives to get into that conversation now and stay in it later.

“If Black culture is driving pop culture, which it is, then it shouldn't be just one month out of the year because pop culture is forever,” Hall says. “How do we leverage that so that when Black History Month comes back around, it's not that you have to say something unique and new, it's that you're evolving and doing even more of what you've already been doing the rest of the year.”

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