Juneteenth—the day commemorating the freedom of slaves in Texas —became a moment last year for brands to engage consumers and audit their own commitments to diversity and inclusion in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. But as marketers cultivate their strategies around June 19 this year, there's a risk to appearing tone deaf, or worse.
“Last year with the George Floyd timing being less than a month before Juneteenth, it became a bit of a moment,” says Ahmad Islam, CEO and managing partner of Ten35, an agency that specializes in reaching multicultural, millennial and Gen Z consumers. “It became a bigger deal in many ways than it had been previously as brands were looking for something to hang their hat on to start to build that relationship with the culture.”
June 19, the day that slaves in Texas were finally freed in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, is a day many commemorate as the end of slavery. And last year, companies like Etsy, Adobe and Mondelēz International began offering June 19 as a paid holiday for employees in an effort of acknowledging the day’s significance.
Yet marketers need to be careful how they approach the day. Old Navy recently suspended a campaign it had planned around Juneteenth. Working with influencer agency Mavrck, the Gap Inc.-owned brand asked Black influencers to purchase Juneteenth T-shirts to wear in order to amplify Old Navy’s effort. The strategy was met with criticism of the clothier's attempt to profit.
“We are disappointed that this campaign outreach, conducted by an outside agency, did not reflect our provided direction, brand spirit or best practices,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “Old Navy is inclusive by design and committed to amplifying voices that have been historically underrepresented.” She said the brand will use the earmarked funds from the campaign to collaborate with BIPOC creatives in the future.
Below, experts share advice on how brands should be handling June 19.
Do your homework
Before even considering external or internal communications about Juneteenth, brands should make sure they have a secure understanding of the date and what it represents. At Ulta Beauty, for example, the brand is keeping in mind that many view June 19 as a somber day to remember those who have lost their lives to racial injustices—not a celebration, a spokeswoman says, noting that 2021 in particular marks the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre.
Ten35's Islam notes that many brands run into trouble by misunderstanding the origins of Juneteenth. It’s not a holiday, he says.
“People misinformed have looked at Juneteenth as Black Independence Day, that’s not how we look at it in the culture,” he says. “It’s more of an observance and an acknowledgement.”