As more brands commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth, there are still lessons on mindfulness to be learned

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 and some brands and agencies are likely to celebrate it for the first time this year. The expansion of celebrating Juneteenth with a day off as well as recognition of the holiday at work, can demonstrate a company’s dedication to the history, traditions and impact of Juneteenth.

But there is still work to be done to get it right, according to brand founders and agency execs

While some companies are just starting to recognize Juneteenth for employees in recent years, others have been doing so long before corporate America’s spotlight fell on the day. And some are looking to do more than simply give their employees a day off. For example, financial service companies Solo Funds and Grain and creative and media agency group Havas, are not only honoring Juneteenth, they are also giving their employees a meaningful way to commemorate the holiday.

For the companies to maintain a strong relationship with their consumers, they have to understand what they celebrate and what culture they are part of in order to achieve long-term success when communicating about, and marketing associated with, Juneteenth.

More than a day off

“It’s important for our employees to understand Juneteenth, just as it’s important for us to understand Pride Month,” said Rodney Williams, co-founder of Solo Funds, which enables a marketplace where members can request and fund emergency needs. The company was founded in 2018 by Black entrepreneurs Williams and Travis Holoway.

Grain, an innovative fintech that extends lines of credit based on cashflow, also celebrated Juneteenth long before it became a federal holiday. “The large majority of our employee base are Black,” said Christian Joseph, CEO of Grain. “50% of the company is a mix of Black and Black immigrants. In regards to Juneteenth, we take it very seriously. We also celebrated Juneteenth long before it became a popular thing to do. It’s not just a one day thing, from inception it’s something we’ve been very conscious of.”

Solo Funds emphasized the importance of being aware of other holidays that may be ethnically-focused or that have a positive agenda. This has now spread to their employees as well. Williams added: Solo Funds “has the most diverse staff that I’ve ever been a part of. And it’s not because we have a diversity initiative, it’s that it’s part of our culture to appreciate differences among the team.”

In addition to closing for Juneteenth this year, Havas has shown a new documentary , “Just Like Me,” to its employees across the country. Made by Havas Chicago senior art director, Mike “TTK” Harris, the film sets out to demonstrate how Black creatives make contributions to culture through their work, highlight the challenges many face due to the color of their skin and reinforce the importance of representation to advertising and design. “Just Like Me” tells the stories of eight Black creatives who helped to shape the world in their own way, against long odds and who are now sharing the lessons they have learned with the next generation.

The idea for all Havas North American employees to see this short film was spearheaded by Stephanie Nerlich, Havas North America’s CEO and the leadership across the group. “We hope that it inspires the next generation of Black creatives to pursue careers in advertising and design,” said Nerlich.

Havas also launched its own commitment to change in 2020, a seven-point plan focused on the development, investment and growth of underrepresented talent — particularly Black talent.

“We have employees who have celebrated Juneteenth their whole lives, as well as those who are just learning about the holiday,” said Nerlich. “Beyond celebrating Freedom Day, a lot of our employees view this as a day of reflection — reflecting on where we’ve been, where we’ve come, and where we need to go as a society.”

Companies will also have to recognize that their employees will share their stories about Juneteenth. Sheena Collier, customer support leader at Solo Funds, was one of the employees who had a powerful Juneteenth story, explained Williams.

“With that message, she took it upon herself to communicate that to our employees and ultimately to the entire company. Solo Funds consists of employees in North America, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. “Kudos to some of our great employees, particularly our head of customer success, [Sheena Collier] who has been so vocal and passionate about our organization,” Williams said. 

Recognition without monetization

Aside from finding ways to go beyond recognizing Juneteenth for employees, brands and agency execs say marketers should learn from recent backlashes against brands looking to monetize Juneteeth commemorations.

Williams, who was previously a brand ambassador at Procter & Gamble prior to co-founding Solo Funds said, “When I used to try to lead these types of initiatives as a human, does this resonate with you? Is it the right thing to do as a human? And yes, you may be doing it as a part of Juneteenth, maybe doing it as part of a particular moment in time. But it should resonate with us being human and us sharing this together. So I think that’s my barometer for success as it relates to things like that when I see ads.”

Certainly Juneteenth should be a moment for brands to celebrate the Black experience, but many still don’t understand how to convey a message in that context in an appropriate and respectful way.

“Given that Juneteenth has been recently introduced as a moment that warrants celebration, brands are looking for guidance on what should be the guardrails that govern how they show their support,” said Joe Anthony, CEO of the 100% Black-owned full service creative and digital agency Hero Collective. “We obviously saw Walmart drop the ball with Juneteenth ice cream. Brands should really use this as a moment to use their brand strength to help empower the Black community.”

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