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The Capitalization of Culture

How companies can move beyond rainbow logos and Juneteenth T-shirts to authentically support change

By Sheryl Daija, Louis Jones


We have become a country of months: Black History Month, Women's History Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Latinx Heritage Month, and more. June is, of course, the month-long celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride.

It is also the month of the national holiday Juneteenth when Black Americans commemorate the day that 250,000 enslaved people living in Texas were declared free on January 19, 1865 – more than a month after the American Civil War ended on May 9, 1865 and significantly later than the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Heritage months were created in celebration of the cultures and contributions of historically marginalized and underrepresented identities. They are focused opportunities to teach and learn about history and, more importantly, to probe into the way diverse cultures are treated as part of the American discourse.

While Heritage months offer many opportunities for learning, they are also complicated for the cultures represented as Black Americans struggle for more than just the month of February, just as being part of the LGBTQIA+ community doesn't only happen in June.

And while Juneteenth is a commemoration of a specific date in time, the ugly legacy of slavery has ongoing reverberations of the inequities for Black Americans born out of institutionalized racism – issues in the workplace, the wide income gap and low representation at all management levels.

It is important to keep all this in mind as companies think about creating targeted products and campaigns to signify "solidarity of the month" with groups, but that also capitalize on them. The month of June presents hard to resist opportunities, such as laser targeting with purported purpose and precision and raising awareness of past and current injustices to pave a more progressive pathway to an inclusive future, wages on beyond the month.

So, one must ask the question: Is it appropriate to capitalize on a culture that isn't our own?

We know the intentions are good — it is a visual and tangible show of support. It is a moment in time to focus on a specific culture. To show a commitment to diversity and inclusion. To stand up and say you matter. But how can companies move beyond rainbow logos and Juneteenth t-shirts to support change authentically and consistently?

For starters, consider the month not as an opportunity to create products, but rather as an opportunity to drive meaningful change.

Instead of Juneteenth ice-cream and t-shirts, ask the following: What are you doing to amplify Black voices within your companies? Do you have representation at all levels of the organization, in the C-suite and at the board table? Are there truly inclusive "listened to" Black voices as part of the product development process all the way through customer service? How often are you consulting with your DEI practitioners to build your own cultural competency and see things through a more informed lens?

Look around your inner circle; if they all look like you then you are relying too much on what you think you know, or stereotypes that are not real. And find opportunities to challenge yourself to be the only one of your culture in a group of people to widen your perspective and gain deeper empathy. And try to do it often.

Remember Juneteenth is a somber day. For Black Americans, it honors their ancestors' perseverance and the blood shed during years of bondage and slavery. For some, Juneteenth is a day spent steeped in stories of struggle and history.

As marketers, this presents a chance to arm yourselves with first-hand knowledge of Black culture and traditions. Consider attending a public Juneteenth commemoration to learn in a non-intrusive way. The result will be a more authentic base of knowledge that will help shift to action for change.

And while Pride certainly has a more celebratory tone, it too deserves deliberation and scrutiny. After all, June is not just a random month, but was chosen to pay homage to the Stonewall uprising, and to honor the brave individuals who stood up to the system and protested for equality in June 1969. This sparked the current LGBTQ+ rights movement and is rooted in the decades-long, arduous struggle for equal rights.

A human-to-human approach is essential.

Reach out to these communities and solicit a dialogue around your plans. You will quickly know if your good intentions will lead to good outcomes or if they will rapidly go awry. Also, remember that month-long "cyclical" recognitions have limited appeal to underrepresented communities; they are far more interested in what you are doing to support their challenges and to drive real change 12 months of the year and into the future. Choose one issue or a few and really stand by them in knowledgeable and authentic ways, ways that really improve their daily lives or the greater quest for long-term equity.

And double down on your DEI commitment in support of your DEI practitioners to help remove systemic and institutional barriers that contribute to the gaps in belonging, representation, inclusion, diversity, and equity. The long-term impact on sales from this kind of authentic commitment will far outweigh a single month of focus.

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.

Sheryl Daija is the CEO at BRIDGE.

Louis Jones is the BSO in Residence at Brand Safety Institute.