With budget cuts, resignations and layoffs in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) departments, professionals and consumers alike have noticed a trend in companies backtracking on their social justice commitments made in 2020. As more concerns of performative activism arise, consumers are watching to see if those same brands are staying true to their word or if they’ve already moved on and are investing less in their DEI efforts.
Cultural heritage months like Black History Month are a cornerstone to many DEI initiatives for brands. But in a landscape where consumers and professionals alike are skeptical with top companies reneging on their previous commitment, how can brands celebrate Black History Month authentically?
In this article, we’ll explore best practices for honoring Black History Month and feature stand-out brands who champion and celebrate all year long.
What is the purpose of Black History Month?
American historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in the 1920s to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of Black Americans and others of African descent. In the 1970s, the week expanded into a month and became nationally recognized by President Gerald R. Ford. While it has been expanded upon by many Black figures in history, Black History Month reminds us to reflect and celebrate the contributions of descendants of the African Diaspora.
Black History Month takes place during February in the United States and Canada. The month is recognized throughout October in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Every year, a theme is applied to focus the public’s attention. The 2024 theme is African Americans and the Arts in the US.
DEI as a business best practice
So why should brands be cautious of withdrawing their previous DEI commitments and embrace celebrating cultural heritage months like Black History Month? Cassandra Blackburn, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Sprout Social points to several reasons.
She explains there’s a proven business case around concerted DEI efforts and the value add it brings to an organization. The importance of viewing DEI as a best practice is reflected in a McKinsey & Company report, where executive teams with more diversity by gender and ethnic representation are more likely to outperform financially.
“There were a lot of commitments that were made in 2020 and beyond thinking about the value proposition. The most critical strategy or component of any business is its employees. When you think about the commitments that were made to individual communities and people altogether, taking that away is bad from a business perspective,” she says.
“It’s bad business because you’ve made commitments to people, your most valuable asset. You lose trust from employees once those things are taken away.”
Beyond the lens of 2020, she explains people are the root of DEI, which means the need to value it becomes even more important.
“As humans, we all come with various experiences, all different points of views regardless of skin color, whom you love, etc. The more that company work and employees’ personal lives become more intertwined, the more critical it becomes to acknowledge, respect and do something with the information that you have about people’s personal identities and beliefs,” she says.
She also points to a shift in mentality from new generations that are coming into the organizations now. Younger generations will push the needle and challenge perspectives because they have expectations of the world and organizations.
“As younger generations continue along their careers and we don’t address the needs they have identified, the pressures that businesses are going to feel will magnify, especially as [new generations] ascend into leadership roles and their voices become bigger. If businesses don’t prepare, they are going to face challenges and potentially fail,” she says.
“As an employer, you are bringing in diversity through many layers. The recognition and acknowledgement of diverse communities is so important for employees to feel seen, heard and included in the company culture. It’s also important from an inclusion standpoint because it’s a chance to educate people who are not part of those communities because they also play a role in the workplace experience,” Blackburn says.
“Often in the corporate environment, in the workplace and just the world overall, we can have tunnel vision. We know the experience that we may have had, but we don’t acknowledge the experience that others have had. So when you call out heritage months and celebratory moments, those are very important because we’ve all experienced triumph. It’s about breaking down those blinders and acknowledging the beauty that is the different cultures and communities that make up our world,” she says.
3 best practices for celebrating Black History Month
Here are three best practices for brands to follow while celebrating each year:
1. Recognize Black history 365 days a year
Blackburn says one of the most important best practices is not secluding the awareness to just a singular month, which also applies to all cultural heritage months. Brands need to consider how they’re championing Black people, culture and achievements beyond those 28 days.
“I want brands to know and be cognizant that this is an ongoing celebration. Be intentional about finding ways to acknowledge the celebration, otherwise it could be perceived as performative,” she says.
Recognizing Black History Month means brands need to go beyond marketing messages that preach solidarity but offer little action. If brands are serious about celebrating the Black community, that commitment needs to extend into aspects of the business and become part of the fabric of a brand’s culture. While they might start off with the best of intentions, brands need to consider the impact of their celebrations. Take a moment to recognize your brand’s role in the conversation, question who benefits from your Black History Month ideas and consider how those ideas can become staples in your brand’s culture.
“As brands make plans to celebrate diverse communities through Black History Month and others, it’s important that they approach their campaigns with authenticity, empathy and cultural intelligence,” says Blackburn. “Center your campaign on advancing the mission and purpose of the celebration by seizing the opportunity to honor the accomplishments of the community.”
“Cultural conversations exist beyond the realms of 30 or 31 days so it doesn’t make sense to only create content or launch campaigns around those months when you can talk about these cultures year round. I think one thing [businesses] need to consider, especially as our society grows, is that a lot more brands are moving toward appealing to the Gen Z audience. And Gen Z is more multicultural than ever,” says Jayde Powell, content creator, marketing strategist and host of #CreatorTeaTalk.
She recommends instead of just targeting Black creators during February, brands can start incorporating them into your overall strategy. She says doing this can help maintain authenticity.
“It makes it more than just this cultural heritage moment and actually shows you are a brand that cares about the Black community. You care about Black creators. And when you say you want to work with Black creators you mean that and it’s not just during Black History Month,” she says.
2. Use social data to inform intentional campaigns that align with culture
Review your social media analytics and social listening data to identify ways to specialize campaigns and identify unique opportunities. Talissa Beall, Strategic Services Consultant at Sprout, led several DEI efforts throughout her career in social. She’s also a committee member of Black@, a Sprout community resource group.
She recalls a time where she used social data to identify misalignment between a brand’s actual customers and their organic social media content. For example, her team discovered there was an opportunity to incorporate photo representation that was more closely aligned with their demographics.
“By reviewing social listening and replies, we paid attention to how people were talking about [the brand], paying attention to language as well. We learned there was a disconnect in imagery and the type of content being featured. We learned that people didn’t care for headshots, but preferred seeing diverse people in other ways, such as a hand shot, back of the head or from the neck down. We were intentionally queuing more representation in social content,” she says.
3. Avoid performative activism through ongoing initiatives
To avoid being labeled disingenuous or opportunistic during Black History Month, brands need to prioritize maintaining their commitment to the Black community year round. There are a number of ways to show solidarity:
- External partnerships: Work with companies, organizations and institutions such as HBCUs that champion diversity and have broad representation to diversity your talent pool and content. Collaborate with third-party DEI vendors to conduct unconscious bias training.
- Compensation: Compensate your partners, especially when working with content creators. If your company is limited on resources, think outside of the box and focus on adding value in another way. For example, you could donate to a nonprofit organization on their behalf or co-market their content across all social media platforms year round.
Create and nurture partnerships with Black creators
As we discussed above, one of the best ways to celebrate in February and beyond is by amplifying voices within the Black community by collaborating with Black creators. Powell says brands want to work with creators because of what they have to offer whether it’s their personality, interests, unique point of view or how they create content. Just as consumers enjoy purchasing from brands that are authentic and allow them to feel like they can trust them, brands want to work with creators they can trust.
According to The Sprout Social Index™, authentic, non-promotional content ranks as the top content type consumers say they don’t get enough of from brands on social media. Powell says leading with authenticity is one of the best ways to accomplish that trust consumers are seeking.
“Often, as creators, we’re the face of the brand. We are the people behind the scenes. So why not infuse who we are into the content that we create? One of those ways to do that is by showing up authentically in who you are,” she says.
Rethink collaboration to achieve authenticity
She recommends brands rethink their approach to establishing connections to help maintain the authenticity consumers seek. She points out that often when we think about relationships between brands and creators, it’s rooted in contract, but human connection makes all the difference.
She explains when she works with brands, she enjoys getting on calls to understand what the brand is trying to accomplish, their end goal and the best way to help them. Seeking this alignment is helpful because what a creator envisions for a brand’s channel or platforms may look different compared to the brand’s perspective.
“I feel like that face time helps them also understand who I am as a person, so they have the knowledge and pretense that this is also going to show up in the content I create—my personality, how I speak, how I write because it’s coming from my brain. It’s my creativity and my creativity is me,” Powell says.
Powell encourages brands to pass the mic to creators during cultural heritage months or cultural moments to center members of the community because that’s sometimes where brands miss the mark. They want to insert their product and services everywhere, but they aren’t a part of or active within the community.
“When it comes to Black, brown, queer, immigrant and plus-sized creators, if you don’t have an authentic, intentional way to step in those communities, leveraging them is a great way to do that because you’re picking people from those communities who already have a connection with your brand. If they don’t have a connection with your brand, there’s an opportunity to educate and showcase why the brand is valuable to them,” Powell says.
Expand your dollar into the community
Powell explains these creator collaborations don’t have to be limited to creating content either. This ranges from nonprofit contributions to bringing in creators as consultants to get a genuine understanding of what cultural conversations are relevant to them.
“Whether you’re a corporation or a small business, if you know these are moments you want to be a part of, look for opportunities to expand your dollar into that community,” Powell says.
Powell emphasizes paying creators in a timely manner and other efforts toward pay equity because of the disparity within the creator economy. When we look at the creator economy as a whole, a large percentage is white.
“Because of this disparity, Black creators are often under-valuing themselves because when you’re not getting as much experience or knowledge into how much you should be charging in a space that’s already convoluted. I think brands also don’t always value Black creators as much as they should,” she says, “There’s that wage gap between Black and brown creators and white creators, but it also comes down to the people that are hiring creators.”
She explains when social media and influencer marketers are working in house to build these cultural heritage campaigns, they often don’t come from those communities so it isn’t always top of mind for them. She points to an example of a time she was working with a brand where a marketer was building an influencer list and it was entirely white, so Powell suggested including more diverse influencers.
“Black people are culture drivers and that’s shown in the creator economy. I’ve seen creators on TikTok who are white predominantly use sounds that were created by Black people and have millions of followers. That’s not to say it’s only Black creators who are creating original content, but that’s something for brands to consider during their research. Who are the true drivers of these trends? Which creators have helped these moments online come to life? You’ll often find that a lot of them are from Black and brown creators,” she says.
She mentions an example that happened on February 1st, 2024. Content creator @cierralikeseggs called out a mega influencer who replicated her joke in a TikTok video word for word. People on both TikTok and X started calling the influencer out for not giving credit to the original creator. The mega influencer deleted the video in response, but didn’t acknowledge the situation.
Between these common scenarios and social media marketing teams often being smaller, Powell explains it’s not just one or two people to vet and validate creators—an industry wide shift is needed. So how can brands be part of the trailblazers making that shift? Pay transparency.
“If you’re working with a creator and you know you have a larger budget and they severely undervalue themselves, tell them. For example, if you’re creating an influencer list of five people and each quote $1000, but one person asks for $300, it would be unethical to give them a lower rate when you know you can do more,” she says.
Pay attention to tone
Remember it’s a celebration. Although it’s important to highlight the history of oppression, racism and institutional struggles, there’s power in amplifying joy in Black History Month and other heritage months such as Latinx Heritage Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“I’ve noticed the more I’ve gotten into marketing, the moment we start talking about cultural heritage months, it’s always rooted in oppression. It’s almost as if being Black is synonymous with struggle. But for a lot of us, being Black is a celebration. It’s not always about our persecution or the dark history of our ancestors. Of course that’s part of it and why we’re able to celebrate, but our experience as people on this planet goes beyond oppression,” she says.
Appeal to the global diaspora
Powell encourages brands to shift their point of view of Black history and culture to include the global African diaspora. As an American citizen born to Jamaican immigrant parents, Powell says that heritage informs a lot of her experience. When we talk about the Black community, that includes people from Africa, Europe, Canada, Latin American, the Caribbean—literally everywhere.
“I think that’s a really missed opportunity for a lot of brands, whether they’re based in the United States or not. When we talk about Black History, it’s immediately around Black Americans. It’s important to get out of the US-centric point of view because the Black experience is global,” she says.
Brands that celebrate year round
Now that we’ve covered the importance of Black History Month and best practices while participating, let’s review some of our favorite brands who do a great job celebrating year round.
If you’re looking for inspiration for celebrating year round, look to Black-owned brands like Topicals. In 2023, the brand made waves online through their brand trips. In August, Topicals hosted the first fully BIPOC sponsored brand trip. The influencer trip resulted in 3 million impressions and an increase of 5,000 followers across TikTok and Instagram. In December, #TopicalsGoneToGhana trip highlighted Detty December, a month-long annual celebration featuring music festivals and other events in West Africa. The campaign resulted in their Slick Salve lip balm to be sold out, but the brand used the opportunity to uplift other brands on social media. On Instagram and TikTok, Topicals featured other Black-owned lip balm brands in Sephora.
Topicals’ 2023 Community Impact Report highlights the brand’s support beyond social media. The skincare brand donated $50,000 to nonprofits, provided free therapy to the BIPOC community, donated 2000 products to help individuals experience financial hardship and more. These initiatives were fueled by the Spottie Sphere, an interactive ambassador program open to customers, creators and skincare professionals.
Pinterest has incorporated inclusive features into the platform. For example, users can search by skin tone, hair pattern and body type. Beyond their product, they also have internal initiatives including employee resource groups, called Pinclusion groups. In 2023, they hosted their inaugural Pinclusion Group Leadership Summit.
Blackburn points to Target as one brand she admires for their work in celebrating Black History Month. “Through the African American Business Council, an employee resource group, [Target] developed a recurring campaign called Black Beyond Measure which amplifies success stories and celebrates Blackness. The campaign showcases products from Black-owned businesses (that are carried in their stores year-round), as well as Black entrepreneurs and Black Target team members.”
Ben & Jerry’s
Accountability follows a statement of solidarity, and brands need to be ready to show how they are backing their words up with visible action. Ty Heath, Director of the B2B Institute at LinkedIn, warns consumers are quick to call out brands that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
“Saying your brand will do better without action won’t stand up to scrutiny,” said Heath. “While many brands have shown support for social justice issues, building trust requires sustained investment—not only during Black History Month.”
She points to Ben & Jerry’s as one brand that has figured out how to be authentic with their activism. “Ben & Jerry’s has made speaking out against social justice issues part of its DNA. The journey starts with an internal conversation about uncomfortable topics we often avoid. To support your growth, incorporate diverse voices and core values into the fabric of your company’s brand and culture,” she said.
Not only do brands like Ben & Jerry’s follow through on their promises; they also take big, bold stands that strive to move the needle on racial equality. The actions a brand takes ripples outside of the organization and can even impact society.
From representing different body types, hair textures and skin tones in their marketing to their award-winning body positivity campaigns, Dove has centered inclusivity as a part of their brand for years. In terms of supporting Black History Month year round, Dove co-founded a coalition to advance the Creating a Respect and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, a law that prohibits racial discrimination based on hair texture and styles such as locs and brands. They’re currently partnering with LinkedIn to create more equitable workplaces for Black women.
“These brands have not always been perfect. DEI is a journey that comes with bumps and bruises. And not everyone will be able to invest millions of dollars, but it’s the smaller commitment, the incorporation of DEI into our values and practices longer term that outweighs any singular campaign or initiative. As an organization, your north star is becoming the most inclusive, diverse and equitable company. That will rain through your social media campaigns, customer engagement and building your brand,” Blackburn says.
Black history is more than a moment
Black History Month social media doesn’t have to stop after February. Cultural heritage months are just the beginning of how brands can show consumers they are prepared to be held accountable for their DEI efforts. Supporting the Black community is an ongoing commitment, with the bulk of the work happening offline.
As brands prepare for their February campaigns, remember that Black history is more than a trend. Approach Black History Month with authenticity and action, but also think about how you can uplift Black communities and culture year round.
Ensure your company efforts are genuine and sustainable by prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in all parts of your business operations. To learn more about how to go beyond diversity statements and integrate DEI into your strategies for long-term success, read our article about who really runs the brand account.