When it comes to honoring a legacy as vast as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, it is a far-reaching impact your brand should be after.
When did you first learn of Dr. King? Was he discussed in school? Or at home with your parents? No matter the setting, most of us have never forgotten his name or what he stood for. Each year on the third Monday of January, we all join together in remembrance of MLK and his dream for racial equality. It is a time to honor his achievements and contribute to the service he fought for.
So how does this translate to brands?
A responsible brand isn’t one that solely focuses on the success of its products and services, but its overall impact on the communities it serves. While this should be a priority year-round, giving to underserved communities on MLK Day is a fitting tribute to the legacy King built.
To help provide some insight into how brands can respectfully honor King’s past and contribute to a more just future, we spoke with Edward Foxworth III, Director of External Affairs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Here's the advice he offered for brands:
Listen to community members
If you’ve had your ear to the ground lately, you may have noticed that Black culture is starting to take center stage in mainstream media. For some, multicultural marketing is a trend. For others, this culture is a cherished part of their identity. Foxworth says that culture, and all of its intricacies, can only be understood by dedicating true effort to the African-American community.
“I think reaching African-American audiences is a very trendy thing to do, multicultural marketing and those kinds of things, and so it’s really important, in my opinion, for brands to understand the audience that they’re trying to reach and not just look at the typical demographics that any marketer would rely on – age, education, household income. I think they’ve got to dig a little deeper and understand the community, the buying patterns, the consumer preferences that individuals in that community experience and what kind of preferences they have,” said Foxworth.
Honor their requests
So, how do you avoid falling into the trap of treating a community as a trend instead of something worth appreciating for the long-term? Balance. Community leaders know the concerns faced by those in their demographic — share the responsibility with them. Here’s one example Foxworth shared:
“Allow the organization you’re sponsoring an event for to dictate some things. In one case, it may be a community organization; in another case, it might be a church organization — so the church is going to have very different needs than the community organization or the school. Those entities need to dictate what their needs are. They can take any motivational component from what Dr. King shared and say, ‘Dr. King talked about asking yourself: What are you doing for others?’ and someone could then say, 'Here’s what we’re doing: We’re going to build handicap ramps to make sure we’re much more handicap accessible around our church thanks to this sponsorship.’ The sponsorship ought to be seen as not just a branding opportunity, but a granting opportunity,” he said.
Similar to the approach taken with consumers and organizations, icons should also be handled with care. This means recognizing the sensitivity around these leaders and being careful to respect them.
“As it relates specifically to getting closer to those icons, that in particular the African-American community holds close, I think it’s important not to trivialize it. They can’t go and try to put a brand next to someone like a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reduce it. I think the [King] family has done an exceptional job in being able to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Foxworth.
Create lasting impact
For Foxworth, honoring historical icons goes far beyond providing standard support we typically see from brands in the form of monetary donations or sponsorships. What does he say the African-American community is truly in need of? Tangible results.
While corporate sponsorships and celebrations have their value, it is real community development that benefits community members. Offering money may provide a temporary solution to an issue, but true support comes in the form of clear, dedicated effort your consumers can see.
“The easy, low-hanging fruit way is to say: ‘Hey, here’s $25,000. Can you put my brand on it and say ‘presented by’ or ‘brought to you by'? Companies can do that all day everyday as long as their money will take them," said Foxworth. "What I’m suggesting is that, in this day and age, just putting their name on an event doesn't go far enough. We have way too many issues and topics in front of us, from critical race theory to the murder of George Floyd, and you have a community, particularly the African-American community, with buying power that has to see that these corporations are going further than putting their names on an event and then hoping that people will patronize their company as a result of seeing them associated with something as significant as Dr. King’s legacy.”
According to Foxworth, the best show of support is one that has lasting effects after the initial contribution.
“Say you have an automotive company who sponsors something and then they turn around and say, ‘We’re going to provide barber shops or hair salons…' (or something that’s ingrained in the African-American community) ... 'You go in the barber shop and we’re going to outfit every single barber with a brand new set of [whatever necessity they might need].' And so what happens is that every company, for however long that equipment is in use, is able to say: 'As a result of this sponsorship on Martin Luther King Day, we have new equipment and we’re better able to provide service to our consumers,' ” said Foxworth. “If you’re working with schools and you want to sponsor something for MLK Day, go and make sure they get whatever is needed in these under-resourced and under-represented schools. If they need new book bags, if they need new bookshelves or some other thing that will lift them up, do whatever you can to uplift the people that make up that community. Don’t just put your name on something.”
For many leaders of color, marketers have to truly care about providing real assistance to the communities they’re interacting with. Trust is a large part of what makes or breaks a brand’s ability to connect with consumers; unfortunately, low trust can result in an unfavorable view of your brand’s intention if you aren’t doing the necessary work to truly support consumers outside of your own desires.
“We understand their intention — it’s about branding, it’s about name recognition, it’s about being a good corporate citizen and being closely identified with an organization. It’s about checking the box at the end of the year so when you do your diversity, equity and inclusion, you can say, ‘We gave $25,000 to ____ for the benefit of XYZ.' I think it’s really important to extend the impact beyond their intention,” said Foxworth. “Fine, that’s your side of the coin, but from our side of the coin, this is what we can really benefit from so that you are providing real support. Help us send children to college, help us set up saving accounts. If you’re a bank and this would’ve been Dr. King’s ninety-third birthday, set up a bank account for the first 193 kids who have A’s. Get savvy, get creative, but make sure that your brand goes farther than just being a name on a program.”
Impacting change that’ll last for generations can have profound effects on a community’s ability to get closer to true equality. Sound familiar? Get out in the world and offer substantial assistance with real lasting power. Think of it as your opportunity to help realize a modern-day dream.