An edited version of this article appeared in MediaPost.

Juneteenth is upon us, and, in the wake of the woke summer of 2020, higher-profile and higher stakes than ever before. Earlier this week, the US Senate unanimously voted to observe Juneteenth as a national holiday—approval by the House of Representatives is still to come. Whether or not Juneteenth becomes the 11th federal holiday (and we believe it should) your brand should be ready, next year. And regardless of your approach (or avoidance) of Juneteenth in 2021, brand voice is one of the keys to creating the right message.

There are many ways to do it wrong. Old Navy called off a campaign last month, following negative response to a “buy our t-shirt to show your support” social media influencer outreach—connecting holidays like Juneteenth to sales is a bad idea. Using the power and reach of Old Navy’s platform to promote Black-owned businesses—Black influencers included!—rather than exploit them would have been a better call. Campaign published a roundup of (negative) reactions from Twitter addressing the commodification of Juneteenth generally.

What to do instead? Ideally, your brand’s voice is rooted in a well-functioning, up-to-date strategy, and works as a set of coherent attributes for expressing or implying that strategy in every message. In combination with a clear view of your audience, strategic components like mission, vision, and values can inform what your brand has license to communicate when it comes to sensitive issues—voice makes clear how to say it.

Let’s assess these elements one at a time, with Juneteenth messaging in particular in mind:

Strategy

What does your brand hope to achieve in the world, and how does it propose to achieve it? How does the United States officially ending slavery—after nearly a century of hesitation and a civil war, then two more years for the news of Emancipation to reach Texas—impact or affect your mission? Answers to these questions are likely related to your company’s larger diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy, which is an excellent place to seek content for a Juneteenth statement or campaign. Strategic maturity on DEI is crucial to creating an impactful, on-brand Juneteenth message. For 2022, plan ahead to arrive at alignment well in advance of the holiday.

Audience

How familiar is your audience likely to be with Juneteenth? If you’re unsure (or the answer is “not very”) educational messaging aimed at spreading awareness may be the right first move. If your audience is likely familiar, your brand’s actions will speak as loudly as your words—align on what you’ll do to support what Juneteenth is truly about, and focus on creating messaging within your brand’s voice that supports those actions. Your DEI strategy should encompass specifics for promoting and celebrating the Black experience in America today, and these long-term, progress-driven initiatives are the right place to begin a plan for next Juneteenth.

Voice

Brand voices are intentionally flexible, in order to accommodate new or changing messaging demands. Occasions like Juneteenth are opportunities to express range: it’s a celebration, but also commemorates ending a heinous wrong. Regardless of whether your brand voice is irreverent or staid, day-to-day, Juneteenth is a serious affair, anchored in reflection and remembrance.

All brand voices, regardless of tonality, can challenge themselves to be both more personal and more direct when it comes to social justice or DEI-related topics—the time for anodyne is over.

Opportunities for brand voices to rise to new occasions are not in short supply, at the moment, and the future promises more of the same. When approaching topics like Juneteenth, look to your brand’s strategic fundamentals first, and if you don’t find what’s needed there, ask everyone you can why. All of us, and so every brand, has a stake in, and responsibilities on, Juneteenth—learning from our past, and always seeking to improve our future.

 

Derrick Mead is Director of Brand Communication