Monday, July 18, 2016

Should Your Brand Talk About Race?

In the early 80s, most of my girlfriends and I smoked cigarettes – Newport to be exact. Their slogan, “Bold. Cold. Newport,” somehow resonated with us as bold, young African American women. We were taking charge and awakening our ethnic pride. Smoking cigarettes was a cool part of the journey; black pride and big afros were even cooler. The Newport brand had found a way to tap into how we were feeling.

Certainly, R.J. Reynolds wasn’t supporting the Black Pride Movement, but by using “Blaxploitation” themes and images, they were leveraging the Civil Rights Movement and the changing attitude on being black in America to enhance their brand. And they were not alone.

Race in advertising is not new. Most will remember the old United Colors of Benetton ads that set the tone for diversity back in the 90s. For years, companies have stood on various social platforms to sell their products. But in light of recent racially-charged tragedies, is it fair to ask your brand to tackle the potentially divisive topic of race relations in your advertising and marketing?

Should your brand talk about race?

Any brand worth their weight in salt has clearly identified consumer demographics. Therefore, it stands to reason that brands try to meet those market segments where they live. But as brands engage with consumers, and consumers with each other, customers have come to expect their favorite brands to care about what they care about. Why? Because candid dialogue shows that brands are connected to the hearts and minds of its customers. Brands that embrace social issues become part of the larger conversation and therefore an integral part of their consumer’s lives.

As a marketing pro you may feel powerless to make a difference, yet almost compelled to say something, because you feel so strongly about what is happening in our society today. This is might be especially true if you market to a specific ethnic customer. Perhaps now is the right time for your brand to make a public statement and become part of a national conversation. However, before you run off to buy dashikis for your entire executive staff, leaders should decide if their brand is ready for this new found social responsibility. Here are a few things to consider before your brand leaps into the calescent waters of race relations.

·       Is this social campaign a fit for your brand?
Savvy marketers have discovered that branding is more than just the company logo, colors, and icons. Your brand is the sum total of the customer experience, in addition to those graphic components. It is what customers say about you to each other that determines your brand. Will your social message fit if the brand is fun, playful or a little left of center? What about if your brand is centered on customer care? Or could your advertisement shake your brand’s foundation because it is so far removed from what you stand for? Know thyself before you embark on swaying others.

·       Do your core values align with your public voice against racism or violence?
You are probably thinking a fight against racism or violence should be part of every company’s core values. Not necessarily. If your brand has never addressed social issues before, or if it leans toward a conservative, predominately white old-guard customer base, customers may have little to no comprehension of a racial divide. They may wonder what has gotten into you or what on earth you are talking about. Make sure your brand’s social narrative matches the company’s values. Otherwise, it could be difficult to demonstrate a genuine desire to improve race relations or the brand’s position against violence. You may need to start slowly with education first.

Starbucks was able to successfully initiate “Race Together” because the campaign is aligned with their corporate values of care, warmth, and belonging. And while writing about race on coffee cups wasn’t embraced by everyone, we witnessed a company willing to risk criticism in an effort to start an authentic dialogue about race in America. It would seem that CEO, Howard Schultz is still very much committed to making a difference and ushering in change through candid conversations, one cup at a time.

·       What is your goal for stating your brand’s social position?
This is where you must carefully examine your intentions. What are your motivations for injecting your brand into this controversial issue? Are you simply trying to sell more product?  Is this just a PSA? Are you attempting to be seen riding the wave of a trending hot topic? Or are you trying to show empathy or perhaps demonstrate a commitment to a specific segment of your market? Is your brand taking a stance or choosing a side? And yes, there is a difference. Before you go public, make sure you understand the WHY of your brand’s decision.

This is also where marketers should set important outcome goals? For example, if you are hoping your social marketing will gain online followers or customers, how many do you hope to gain and within what time frame? Carefully consider, what is the point of playing 'the race card’ because you will need to weigh the cost.

·       Do not create your social marketing campaign in a bubble or ivory tower.
It is imperative that you connect with those on the front lines, conduct focus groups, and talk to people to gain valuable insight into this very complicated issue. How can you talk about changing belief systems when you don’t know what those beliefs and perceptions are? You will want to have many candid interviews with a diverse group of customers about their experiences and their opinions about race relations, especially as it relates to your brand. Do not assume you know or understand cultural norms.

The Old Spice ad featuring the shirtless black man on a horse was a huge hit for Procter & Gamble. But many critics were quick to point out that the ads were reminiscent of the “Mandingo-stud” ads of the 70s. The same can be said about the new Allstate commercials featuring actress/comedian Leslie Jones. The 30-second spots have sparked controversy and debate about the perceived image of black women as being over-sexualized, aggressive and masculine looking. Brands need “straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth” feedback and guidance on the best language and images to use to express their position. You don’t want your good intentions to be misconstrued, or worst, insulting.

·       Are you prepared to deal with and manage consumer push-back?
Three years ago General Mills tried a subtle approach to diversity with their Cheerios brand cereal. The commercials showing an interracial couple (with a biracial child) got people talking about race. In fact, the Internet was all abuzz. Unfortunately, some of the online comments were rude, racists and downright hateful. Later, a few pundits questioned if GM might have planted the controversial posts themselves in order to gain public support for their bravery—although that is highly doubtful.

Earlier this year, Old Navy sauntered down the racial acceptance aisle with another ad featuring an interracial couple and biracial child. However, again, there was public backlash with some very ugly comments – one Twitter user went so far as to accuse Old Navy of “supporting the genocide of the white race!”
Most recently in response to the tragic and senseless deaths in Dallas, Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge, music streaming giant, Pandora tweeted a sympathetic message that said, “Our hearts ache for all those who unfairly lost their lives.” The public response was swift, abundant, and sometimes heartbreaking to read. Hundreds vowed to cancel their Pandora subscriptions or boycott the service simply because the company included the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter.  The core message of #Blacklivesmatters is that the lives of African Americans matter as MUCH as the lives of others – not MORE than. And unequivocally and without question, does it remotely imply that Blue lives matter least of all. But this meaning often gets lost. 

Is your brand prepared to deal with customers who won’t like the stance you’ve taken or misunderstand your narrative? Leaders better have a contingency plan for addressing negativity because it will surely come. Unfortunately, it’s the world we live in and also why these discussions are so critically important.

Race in America is a very large and complex hairy beast that is more arduous to tame than say, Saving the Whales or Feeding The Homeless. Conversations about race, or lack thereof, expose the underbelly of our most righteous and most wretched core values, then feasts on our sacredly held beliefs. For this reason alone you may decide that the topic is far too heavy for your brand to bear. No one would find fault with your decision. Racism is the last frontier of human cataclysm that won’t be solved by one ad, one commercial or one post. But it’s a start.

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