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Don’t just 'try': why brands need to stop playing with Black History Month

ITV marked Black History Month UK with 'It’s All About' that drew on the rich contribution to British life of Black figures

A leading voice for African Americans and Black professionals in ad land for decades, Brown and Browner Advertising founder Derek Walker is fed up with brands 'playing' with Black History Month. Here, he explains why it is better to act (or not act)... but never promise to just 'try.'

Don’t try. Either do or don’t do.

(Yeah, I butchered Yoda’s quote)

“Can we also separate gestures from true behavioral change? I don’t need a lunch and learn on the contributions of Harriet Tubman," – Kam Taitt

Let that marinate for a moment.

“Brands should do absolutely nothing for Black History Month before they do something that reeks of insincerity or does not align with how they have done business with the Black community,” was my first thought when The Drum approached me about writing a piece on “...what brands should be doing during Black History Month to show their support.”

Don’t say something you don’t mean.

No one likes being placated to, and sometimes it feels like brands think groups are not aware enough to realize that whatever statement a brand makes is lip service, an attempt to curry favor from a group by pretending they give a rat’s behind about the people they do business with. News flash: most people know that brands don’t care about them beyond the money a company can make off of us. If you are going to make that lofty statement, you damn well better be living it.

Your brand doesn’t even know who it is talking to. Where are you in our communities? Have you or your marketing and advertising teams come into our community to understand who you are talking to? We don’t all live in the inner city either. Black people are not a monolith, but there are some shared experiences that you should discover that can make your dealings with us more relevant.

So, what should brands do? Get real about Black History Month – make some 'Black History'. Address the diversity, equity and inclusion inside the brand – get your house in order. Put out a human message showing that you understand that the best way to celebrate the contributions that Blacks have made to history is to make sure they have the opportunities inside your brand to grow and excel – to make new history.

Stop with the history lessons and/or the mantras. See the people inside the group, and speak to their humanity. Try coming home with us, getting to know us, and seeing how we live and think. Get creative about showing that you see them. Celebrate Black History Month like you mean it. Put some thoughts and money behind the effort. Don’t focus on the press you may get out of it, and focus on the impact or change you can make with your message and actions.

Do more, talk less.

There is no silver bullet or one size fits all solution for what brands should do to celebrate Black History Month. How about we start by trying to do something different and meaningful, which requires getting an understanding of who you are trying to speak to. Put in the copulating work. Treat it like it matters to you.

Here’s a strange thought, invite (and by saying “invite” I mean hire) Black creatives and agencies to work on the assignment, and pay them well to deliver something different and real (don’t know any or can’t find them? Hit me up, and I can give you a list).

Show that your brand is serious by doing something different. I love history, but just because it is part of the name for the month doesn’t mean that a brief history lesson is the best you can do. Tie whatever you do to your brand, show that it is a reflection of who and what the brand is. I’m not going to give you examples, do the work. Look at your brand, and discover how it and the Black community intersect. Show some interest.

Or do nothing.

Let the month pass, and be true to who you are the other 11 months out of the year – a brand that only cares about what they can make off of Black people while not having real connection or presence within the community beyond your product or service. At least we can respect your honesty that way.

Shhh. Don’t say anything if you don’t mean it.

I’m serious. It’s better to do nothing than to pretend with the Black community. We notice, and we tend to register our discontent with fake through our wallets. Please don’t have Black Twitter come for you.

Derek Walker is the founder of Brown and Browner Advertising. Read his past op-eds in The Drum — including his look at the history of Black advertising professionals in iconic advertising and his piece that asked does advertising has the stomach for a fair fight?

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