What Brands Can Learn From Bath & Body Work’s Failed Attempt to Celebrate Black History Month

By Dominick Fils-Aimé

"Well this is VERY tacky," wrote one Twitter user. "Ya'll couldn't even give new scents? Just redressed the same old stuff we been buying all year? Not cool. Not cute. Not ok."

Many brands use Black History Month as an opportunity to highlight black creators, and celebrate black culture. However, some brands miss the mark by launching campaigns that lack cultural sensitivity, authenticity, and genuine effort and only appear to pander to Black people.

One such example was Bath & Body Works which received backlash over its limited-edition Black History Month Collection. The collection featured products with Kente cloth-inspired packaging designed by Black creatives and included words such as "unity" and "empowered" on various soaps, scented candles, and fragrances. The brand also pledged to donate $500,000 to the National Urban League and Columbus Urban League to support civil rights and racial justice.

While these efforts were well-intentioned, many consumers criticized Bath & Body Works for slapping Kente cloth on the same products it had been selling all year. Others argued that the brand missed an opportunity to truly support the Black community by partnering with Black-owned businesses.

"All you've done is slap some tribal print and positive words on existing products," read one comment on the company's Facebook page. "This is pandering and embarrassing. If you want to celebrate something, then make that effort."

Winfred Johnson, assistant professor of history at Bethune-Cookman University went as far as accusing the brand of cultural appropriation:

"A genuine effort to 'promote economic empowerment' would be to sponsor genuine African or African-American artists in their packaging or advertisements, or better yet to sponsor actual African or African American artisans by selling or advertising their own products — oils, candles, lotions and textiles in Bath & Body Works stores or on their website," Johnson said.

Shyriaka "Shy" Morris, founder of PEACE ARTS, an organization that provides youth and environment friendly art classes to communities of color, expressed how the collection was a missed opportunity to empower and educate.

"You can wrap it in Kente cloth all day long and call it advocacy but it's not empowering us at all," she said. "This is an overall box check to get Black people to come in and buy their products. They could've used this as a tool to teach which furthers the education of Black people in America. This was a missed opportunity to push the culture forward, instead of capitalizing like most companies do off the Black dollar."

The lesson for brands should be to be more thorough and thoughtful. Instead of simply slapping Kente cloth onto soaps, candles, and fragrances that were available long before the collection launched, Bath & Body Works' should have created a product line of new products inspired by Black culture. I personally would have stood in line for a cocoa butter or brown sugar scented candle.

Even better, the brand could have used its platform to drive awareness of soaps, candles, lotions, and fragrances made by Black owned businesses. For example, Nordstrom honored Black brands Harlem Candle, The Spice Suite and more in celebration of Black History Month.

Moreover, instead of simply plastering generic words like "unity" and "confidents" on its products, Bath & Body Works' could have used the space to highlight the names of Black pioneers that affected the world, present data reflecting racial inequities, or spotlighted culturally relevant historical events.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Dominick Fils-Aimé is a manager of editorial and content development at ANA.