In SMPL Q+A, we interview our practitioners on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. Here, we speak with our Associate Strategy Director, Elizabeth Rodriguez, to discuss the NFL’s egregious error for Hispanic Heritage Month, as well as how brands can authentically and actionably honor the community year-round.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

Elizabeth Rodriguez: For me, Hispanic Heritage Month is when I look inward and outward. It’s when I most reflect on my childhood in Mexico City and the cultural milieu that has shaped how I carry myself in the world today. I’ve always viewed the Mexican “side of myself” as a superpower: the power to retreat into a world where I can gain strength and inspiration from something rich in tradition and beauty. That said, I’ve always been mystified by this world because I know I only see a small part. There’s a vastness to it that I will never truly understand and a power beyond me because it lives in Hispanic people all over the world. During events like Hispanic Heritage Month, I get closer to understanding the breadth of the Hispanic world. I get a peek into areas unknown and nuances maybe I’ve felt but have never been able to put into words. I get to connect with those who share my “superpower” and learn about their piece of the culture that is woven into the fabric of their identity. So, this month to me, is all about connection. Connection to my superpower. Connection to my sacred place. And best of all, connection to those who share the experience of knowing another beautiful world.

As brands honor Hispanic Heritage Month, recent high-profile mistakes demonstrate what not to do. Does the logo change indicate a cultural shift within the NFL?

E.R.: Ideally, a logo change like this would be the tip of a spear representing organizational change and productive conversations happening this month at the NFL. While I can’t speak to what is happening internally, the poor execution makes me think this is, unfortunately, just a marketing campaign. It reminds me of the “rainbow washing” we see every June.

The reality is that there’s a real upside to attracting once-marginalized communities because they’re not marginal anymore. There’s an incredible rise in buying power by Hispanic Americans in the U.S., and the league is likely targeting Hispanic viewers. If the NFL wants to gain credibility with the Hispanic community, they need to speak with their actions, not a misplaced accent mark. How is the NFL empowering its Hispanic players and personnel? How is the NFL using its powerful platform to dissolve stigmas? This is what matters.

What institutional failures at the NFL enabled this shocking campaign?

E.R.: Ironically, a miss like this is a perfect symptom of the issue that the NFL is presumably trying to improve: representation. Clearly, Hispanic voices were not at the table. Clearly, there are not enough Hispanic decision-makers. When something like this happens, consumers get a rare peek into how an organization really works – we see who is calling the shots and who is not.

This is certainly a teaching moment about the importance of representation and voice. What can the NFL learn from this error?

E.R.: The NFL can learn the difference between being acknowledged and being heard. While the sentiment of acknowledging Hispanic players and personnel is a good one, it is not going to enact real change.

The NFL can see this as a clear indicator that they have work to do when it comes to truly elevating Hispanic voices in the league. Rather than seeing this as a mistake, the league can use this as a springboard for productive conversations around how they better support Hispanic players and personnel. There clearly is a disconnect here, and now is the time to bridge the gap.

Tone-deaf approaches to heritage months and other points on the cultural calendar are abundant. How can brands avoid this and authentically and actionably honor communities?

E.R.: One thing to remember is that heritage months should not be treated like holidays. This is not another opportunity to reach a desired audience segment or run a seasonal campaign. Months like Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month are meant to encourage powerful conversations that move our society towards understanding and acceptance.

When brands do this right, it is grounded in bringing marginalized groups to the table and letting their voice be heard. With that approach, you can’t lose because it’s authentic and real.