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Unpacking Fashion’s Updated Approach to Black History Month

Brands tried to show they were keeping promises made during last summer’s protests. Were they successful?
Actor Michael B. Jordan, The Cut editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and musician Cordae appeared on “Coach Conversations," the brand's YouTube series, in an episode timed to Black History Month. Coach.
Actor Michael B. Jordan, The Cut editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and musician Cordae appeared on “Coach Conversations," the brand's YouTube series, in an episode timed to Black History Month. Coach.

In fashion marketing, the success of a campaign is frequently judged by whether an Instagram post or TikTok video was able to momentarily capture consumers’ attention before they continued on their endless scroll.

During Black History Month this year, some brands went for a deeper connection. There were plenty of hashtags, posts and emails touting sales, but also efforts to support Black artists and entrepreneurs, donations to civil rights groups and pledges to improve diversity at the corporate level. Coach posted a 20-minute conversation between actor Michael B. Jordan, musician Cordae and The Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner to its Youtube channel, where the three discussed the mental toll of public activism, among other topics. American Eagle Outfitters Inc. sponsored Harlem’s Fashion Row’s annual summit, an industry event built around empowering Black talent.

For many brands, the unspoken goal was to show they had listened to consumers who had demanded change last summer and that fashion could play a positive role in conversations about race.

Were they successful? Most brands at least avoided a repeat of last summer’s black Instagram squares campaign, which was widely derided as substance-free pandering. Some scored modest hits: Coach’s conversation has racked up 162,000 views, ranking as the brand’s second-most-viewed Youtube video this month. ColourPop, PÜR and NYX Professional Makeup gained exposure for participating in the #MakeItBlack campaign, an initiative from Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter where brands wrapped popular products in black packaging, with proceeds going to Black beauty entrepreneurs.

The shift in marketing tactics also created opportunities for Black-owned brands, which were able to partner with global giants around Black History Month, where in past years they might have been competing for the spotlight. While #MakeItBlack helped Colourpop increase its earned media value, a measure of engagement on social media, it was Uoma Beauty itself that got the biggest boost, according to Tribe Dynamics.

Retailers that pledged over the last nine months to carry more Black-owned brands used February to experiment with ways to drive sales beyond one-off collaborations or capsule collections. Nordstrom and Macy’s created landing pages to highlight Black-owned brands, for instance.

Brands should view their efforts since the June protests as an ongoing commitment, rather than a one-off chance to make amends. Consumers are likely to notice if marketing around Black-owned brands and creative talent disappears on March 1. (The same goes for communicating on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — when brands sent double the marketing emails this year compared to last year, according to market intelligence firm Edited — or on Juneteenth.)

Corporations [that] are authentic have an obligation to let all of us know where they stand.

“Seeing the Black community as an investment and seeing them as a long-form play to build [a] relationship, I think, is key,” said Idia Ogala, a marketing and content strategist who has worked with the NBA, Disney and Coors Light on diversity marketing strategies. “They [have to prove] they don’t just want our dollar.”

On some level, there’s still a disconnect between what brands are doing and what consumers want them to do.

In June, Gartner, a research firm, found consumers liked when brands communicated support for social justice causes, but liked it even more when they rolled out internal diversity initiatives. But in a separate survey of CMOs in December and January, Gartner found that executives prioritised corporate support of causes, such as donations, holding events or advocating for policy changes.

Brands that fail to show they have addressed hiring practices and workplace culture risk alienating consumers, said Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, CEO of diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm Rae Mackenzie Group, which counts companies like Verizon Wireless, Target and Best Buy as clients.

“Corporations [that] are authentic have an obligation to let all of us know where they stand,” she said.

The stakes are especially high, given that consumers are on the lookout for empty messaging: 60 percent of consumers said they believe that when a brand comments on social or cultural issues, it’s in an effort to preserve their bottom line, according to a Gartner survey conducted in June.

Once a brand’s own house is in order, it will have a better foundation for its communications strategy.

Ulta Beauty announced on February 2 media investments of about $20 million — doubling the company’s spend over the last three years — dedicated to “endemic and multi-cultural platforms to create more personal connections with LatinX, Black and other communities.”

The media commitment, however, was part of a broader initiative: Tracee Ellis Ross was tapped to be Ulta’s diversity and inclusion advisor, while the brand committed itself to carry more Black-owned brands over the course of 2021, performing more diversity and inclusion training, and launching an executive mentorship program.

“In a way, any progress is good,” said Dipanjan Chatterjee with Forrester Research. “However, brands who are truly committed to advancing justice do much more ... they change their products, their systems, their business processes in an attempt to battle discrimination.”

While thoughtful marketing around Black History Month fosters goodwill with Black customers, it also helps brands stay relevant with a broader group of consumers looking to spend money with brands whose values reflect their own.

“When you market to African Americans, you sell to everyone,” said Smith-Akinsanya.

Related Links:

How PR Firms Are Navigating Fashion’s Race Problem

As Brands Rush to Speak Out, Many Statements Ring Hollow

Black Fashion Leaders Push Industry to Move Beyond D&I Commitments

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