BrandsD&IFeaturesPeopleJuneteenth Matters: When consumers see branding as exploitation

As the second Juneteenth federal holiday approaches, attempts to brand events and sell products tied to the celebration have resulted in some marketing missteps and sparked outrage on social media.
Gayle Starling-MelvinJune 6, 202214 min
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Just one year ago, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. Now, the cultural gaffes, largely driven by commercialization, are aplenty and apologies are flying with no end in sight.

Arkansas got the “I’m sorries” started in April when some of its citizens pitched a Juneteenth Soul Food Festival and Market, showcasing three prominent white people from the business community, on a poster recommending that the community save the date. It turned out that all the food hosts were white, and nobody bothered telling the Arkansas Urban League, also mentioned on the poster, that it was a sponsor. That mess ended when festival organizers quickly canceled it.

Muskie Harris, a Black Republican and former candidate for lieutenant governor who was organizing the event, told The Arkansas Times that the festival was “dead.”

“I got a rope around my neck, and I’m tarred and feathered over an event that’s already dead,” said Harris, a former football player. “It just got perceived in the wrong way, and my sponsors said to leave it alone. It’s dead. It’s dried up.”

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Then “Black Twitter” went to work on Walmart and its Juneteenth trademarked red-velvet ice cream under its Great Value label.
Walmart put the ice cream in a container adorned in the colors red, black and green with the image of two Black hands high fiving each other. Many people thought the ice cream was Walmart’s bid to cash in on the sacred holiday.

Soon, photos of the ice cream container were all over social media, especially Twitter. Reaction was not kind.

On May 23, 2022, Bridge, a group that expounds diversity, equity and inclusion called on Walmart, in an open letter, to “immediately pull the Great Value brand of Juneteenth Ice Cream.” Bridge went on to say, “[Juneteenth] is a day of commemoration. A serious day. It is neither fun nor frivolous but rather a memory of a very dark and devastating period in American history.”

Another concern of Bridge was the TM trademark used by Walmart and shown next to the word Juneteenth. “Placing a TM and claiming ownership of the word ‘Juneteenth’ further exacerbates the lack of understanding of laying claim to something that represents so much to an entire population. Juneteenth simply cannot be owned,” the group said.

It’s still up for discussion what upset people of color more: the label, the trademark, or the message: “Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.”

In addition, Walmart introduced Juneteenth-themed party supplies, which included red-yellow-and-green napkins, paper plates, and beer cozies, as well as Juneteenth-themed wine, water bottles and commemorative T-shirts.

An unnamed Walmart spokesperson apologized, announced the company was removing the ice cream from the shelves and said it was “reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.” Marcom Weekly checked its website and found dozens of Juneteenth-branded items still for sale as of Sunday, June 5.

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Just recently, visitors to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis were outraged that the museum was selling a Juneteenth Watermelon Salad ($10). After the barrage of criticisms, the museum apologized and pulled the salad from its menu.

Apparently, it had escaped the museum’s attention that watermelons have long been associated with stereotypes about African Americans and might not be appropriate for the holiday.

“We apologize and acknowledge the negative impact that stereotypes have on communities of color,” the museum said.

Are any Black people, any people of color, in these rooms when these decisions are being made?
“Probably not, and if they are (of color), they may be more interested in that paycheck than doing the right thing,” contends Michelle Ngome, an award-winning fractional diversity marketing consultant and speaker. She heads her own firm and is founder and president of the African American Marketing Association.

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Michelle Ngome


“It really speaks to the reverence we give to white people,” she said. “Jews had it rough, too, but that history is really sacred. There is no ice cream being made, no exploitation being made out of the Holocaust. We want that same respect.”

Ngome has spent a good chunk of her life in Texas, so she is far from new to the holiday that has prompted Americans of all persuasions to get better rooted in its inception and its roots.

Sometimes referred to as “Freedom Day” or “America’s second Independence Day,” Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. It was then that Union Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston and told those enslaved in Texas that the Civil War had ended, and they now had their freedom. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier.

Juneteenth has been commemorated and even celebrated since then, largely as the oldest observance of the end of slavery in the United States. While it took root in Texas, where it has been a state holiday since 1980, now activities, including parades, are held across the country.
And in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020, and the reckoning that followed, many African Americans are feeling more than a little territorial. In fact, blogger Khaleef Alexander, a self-proclaimed reparationist, is so committed to the Juneteenth commemoration that he has established a Juneteenth Diary on which he argues that “no person from the dominant society should be selling Juneteenth products or should own anything in regards to Juneteenth.”

At least one mainstream company has found a way to engage the community for such occasions. JCPenney’s work in varied communities across the country suggests that being inclusive, respectful and collaborative is one way to be of service and to be about business, as well.

JCPenney honored Dr. Opal Lee, of Fort Worth, Texas, who is considered “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” last month as part of a virtual conversation event called “Walking for Freedom.” She has been a staunch advocate for the celebration for most of her life and was at the White House when Biden signed the holiday into law. The “Walking for Freedom” broadcast streamed live on Facebook and YouTube and can still be viewed.

This month, the day before Juneteenth, the retailer will join Dr. Lee in Fort Worth for “Opal’s Walk for Freedom.” It’s a 2.5-mile walk begun in 2016 that commemorates the 2.5 years it took the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. JCPenney will also launch a new Juneteenth collection from Hope & Wonder, a private label brand designed to engage the community in a positive way.

“Part of the brand’s mission to is honor cultural observances, including Black History Month, Pride Month, Juneteenth and Hispanic Heritage Month with philanthropy-driven capsule collections that support the important work of notable nonprofits,” said Val Harris, senior vice president of trend, brand and design for JCPenney Purchasing Corporation, who has risen through the ranks over a 44-year career.

Val Harris


The brand, she said, “leverages the company’s national platform to raise awareness, celebrate diversity and uplift our communities.” All the net profits will go to its nonprofit partners.

“JCPenney believes in celebrating and embracing diverse ideas and perspectives and in creating inclusive environments where associates and customers feel valued and respected,” Harris said.


Gayle Starling-Melvin

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