The truth is that brand messaging mistakes are going to be made. Any meaningful effort to engage a rapidly evolving audience will see a few experiments go wrong. With Black audiences, in particular, the 2020 Olympics reinforced how brand management of top priority social issues will always be a challenge. The good news is that we can take a few lessons from previous missteps to help ensure that we do better as culturally sensitive and supportive marketers going forward.
Adjust to the shifting expectations of Black consumers
The industry has seen the growth of purchasing decisions based on values alignment for a number of years, and consumer research is confirming the change. Approximately 40% of the highly targeted 18-to-34-year-old age group of Black consumers expect brands to support social causes and be responsive when facing these issues. The freedom that brands once had to avoid taking a position or making a statement is eroding.
Recently, Balenciaga came under fire for cultural appropriation with the sale of sweatpants designed to emulate the “saggy pants” look that became a style hallmark in the 1990s. The reaction from the Black audience was predictable given the increased attention to appropriation and offering credit in the past few years. This incident gave the brand an opportunity to acknowledge the audience and confirm that it hears the feedback. So far, the brand’s CMO has offered only a statement that combining wardrobe pieces into a single garment is something done in many Balenciaga collections. The best approach is to face the situation head-on and take steps to understand that consumer expectations have changed.
Determine which issues actually matter to your brand
There is a breadth of social and cultural issues facing the community, and your brand is best served by moving from a place of authenticity. Which issues matter to staff and leadership? Which issues have a meaningful impact within the communities where your customers live? If your messaging and marketing activities are rooted in working to tackle a matter that is important to your team and your customers, you will be ahead of the game from the start. Brands are not being asked to solve racial disparity or other key issues. Consumers just want to understand whether your brand is an advocate or ally, particularly when their communities are contributing to your bottom line.
In the summer of 2020, the country was entering the final stretch of a major election and the social justice movement reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League led a civil rights coalition and challenged brands to take a stand against hate and pause spending on Facebook. A number of major corporations announced their alignment by pausing their campaigns and issuing strong statements advocating for change to stop the proliferation of hate speech via the social media giant. These brands led by example, but it would not have been possible without first understanding where their corporate values dovetail with the social issues impacting their customers and deciding to act.
Seek guidance from the community
Finding effective methods to engage and connect with the Black target audience is an ongoing and evolving process, but brands have access to a wide range of resources. This includes consulting specialty marketing and media companies that focus on this nuanced work each day. Share and vet your ideas with members of the communities you are looking to reach, as they will provide insightful feedback that could save your brand from an avoidable misstep that derails your objectives.
We were granted a glimpse into the impact and power of expert community guidance when Crayola introduced the ‘‘Colors of the World’’ product. The new set of skin tone crayons offer young artists the ability to represent themselves and others in their world accurately when they draw. The brand team understood that they were moving into the space of diversity and inclusion and collaborated over months with industry experts, consumers and more to ensure they achieved their goal without leaving anyone out.
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