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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

As We Look Back on Juneteenth, Remember: Authenticity Beats Commodification

DEI expert Diane Primo spoke with 3p about which brands managed to get Juneteenth right, and what companies should focus on for such future commemorations.

In only its second year of federal recognition, Juneteenth was once again subjected to a slew of exploitative and offensive marketing attempts from brands more interested in financial gain than respect and representation. Diane Primo, the CEO of Purpose Brand and an expert in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), spoke with TriplePundit about which brands managed to go against the tide and get it right, which one failed the worst of all and what businesses should focus on for future Juneteenth commemorations.

“We have to remember what the holiday represents. At the heart of slavery was a commercial enterprise of the Black community,” she explained. Where people were “property that were sold for profit. Slavery represented a for profit system. So, when you get to celebration of freedom it’s important that corporations understand that transaction cannot be at the heart of any marketing effort without directly benefiting the causes of the community.” Unfortunately, she said — “We fundamentally don’t get it.”

Where were the Juneteenth teachable moments?

So, who was the worst offender? Primo's answer isn’t likely to surprise anyone. When it comes to what not to do, “Walmart is the poster child.”

3p previously covered the Walmart ice cream debacle as a part of its Juneteenth reporting. The retail giant released a red velvet cheesecake flavored ice cream — complete with a trademark symbol on the package — to major backlash this year. While the dessert was eventually pulled from stores along with a line of Juneteenth themed disposable cups, plates and napkins that proclaimed “It’s the freedom for me,” it’s difficult to understand how the products made it onto shelves and into freezers in the first place.

“Shame on them!” Primo said as she pondered how the corporation can be so big and have so much talent at its disposal and yet make such a blatant mistake. “It shows they just don’t understand purpose. Or diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“If you’ve grown up segregated” — which most white Americans have due to the nature of how white neighborhoods continue to endure — then “your experience just isn’t good enough,” she said, bringing home the need for DEI at every level of leadership and marketing.

What brands got Juneteenth right?

Fortunately, Primo reported that there were brands that didn’t approach the holiday through commodification and instead promoted dialogue and representation. Among these, she listed JC Penney and Sephora as businesses that promoted the meaning behind the holiday instead of using the holiday to promote their own products. “JC Penney said, ‘Let’s talk about this and have an honest dialogue’.” The department store brand opened up that conversation by inviting Dr. Opal Lee — the activist who walked from Texas to Washington, D.C. at the age of 89 as a part of her campaign to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday — to give a talk about observing the holiday. Meanwhile, Sephora contributed their own part to the educational discourse by featuring Lee on a billboard above its Time Square store. 

“There are a number of commercial opportunities for brands to do it right,” Primo affirmed, giving the example of JC Penney’s Hope and Wonder line, which donates 100 percent of its net proceeds back to community non-profits.

She remarked that just as rainbow washing exists, so does “Juneteenthwashing,” which she described as: “Hijacking holidays and doing nothing in return.” Still, there are a lot of brands doing Pride right, and the same could be said for Juneteenth. Primo pointed to Tinder, YouTube and Microsoft as examples that marketers can look to for their Juneteenth campaigns. What matters, she explained, is to “Honor it authentically. What that means is, understand what the issues around the holiday are and ground promotion in history.”

Why it's important to acknowledge the pain behind this holiday

That also means understanding the pain that comes from that history and honoring it, she explained. “With that as a lens you really have to market differently,” she said, describing a spirit of promotion that is more about giving than it is about selling. “Authenticity should be at the core.” 

That means considering all aspects of a campaign for authenticity and representation — including context, voice and tone. It means vetting suppliers and partners. “Who are you using as your agency?” Primo asked pointedly. If the agency doesn’t represent the population how will it produce something genuine and meaningful? She added, “It’s about integration and connection in an authentic way.”

For marketers who still don’t understand why it’s so important to lean in authentically, Primo urges them to remember that only 30 percent of the American population is white male. Brands can no longer afford to ignore everyone else. “Power has shifted to the consumer and it is in their hands,” she said.

Which is why she insists that “The purpose of business is to be a business of purpose.” Brands would be wise to remember this, not just on Juneteenth or during Pride, but all year long. 

Image credit: William Adams via Pixabay

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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