As Companies Acknowledge Juneteenth, What Now?

A year ago, fashion companies and corporations across the country trumpeted plans to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees and marketed the importance of the day that marks the end of slavery in the U.S.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people learned they were free from slavery — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which was supposed to take effect in January 1863.

Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last year, subsequent acts of police brutality and protests in response to them, as well as support for the Black Lives Matter movement, dozens of companies also used their social media channels in solidarity. Unlike last year, when companies were proactive about sharing their Juneteenth plans, this year some brands seem to be taking a more subdued approach.

Others, however, like Nordstrom and Target remain committed to observing Juneteenth through educational opportunities and, in some cases, as a paid holiday. While such acknowledgments can also serve as reminders to consumers about the significance of the historic day, two advertising and branding specialists have ideas about how companies can make Juneteenth observances even more meaningful within their organizations and the country at large.

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Marcus Collins, head of strategy at Wieden + Kennedy, described last year’s efforts as “more reactive than they were proactive” and acknowledged that many people had never heard of Juneteenth before. “It remains to be seen just how impactful [companies’] observances will be.”

Collins, who is also a full-time professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said some companies are giving employees the day off, offering them more opportunities to be reflective or offering special programming, but he said, “what is important is that Juneteenth becomes less of a date on the calendar and more about ritual and ceremony. There are tons of holidays on the calendar that are names, but not really exercised in behavior and ceremony.” The aim is that Juneteenth becomes part of the country’s makeup, just as we observe President’s Day, or Black History Month.

“Constant dialogue, constant discourse and talking about things that are uncomfortable” are needed for companies in observing Juneteenth in a way that’s impactful, according to Collins.

As for how brands can help further that discussion but do so in a way that isn’t exploitive or commercializing, Collins said, “The great part about brand marketers is we’re some of the best storytellers ever and we have a history as an industry of legitimizing. We told the world and America that smoking was cool. Then we said decades later, ‘Actually, smoking is bad. Don’t do that.’ And then smoking decreased drastically over the years. We have that power. ‘[All] media works us over completely,’ as Marshall McLuhan would say. Because of it we have the ability to impact the cultural zeitgeist or the way we go about learning of the world and sparking the discourse that is required…But also we have the responsibility to do it.”

To that end, “in a climate where there are so many forces at play to downplay slavery and history in the U.S.,” there is an opportunity brands to challenge that by offering the reality all year round, Collins said.

Reflecting accountability

Holding companies accountable for their commitments to racial diversity and inclusion is essential, and consumers have the spending power to support the brands that fulfill their commitments, Collins said.

Increasingly over the past year, Leo Burnett has been advising clients “how to inject more authenticity, nuance and insight into inclusion into the work,” according to chief strategy officer Aki Spicer. “In general, we don’t talk about these matters — matters of race and inclusivity. It’s all hushed tones. Everyone is worried about the missteps. I try to urge our clients to get comfortable with the bold steps.”

While many brands and corporations are “hyper-consumed about not getting it right…there can be a bit of hesitancy and fear around just the topic. Many in our agency have been trying to encourage more conversation — let’s talk out loud about where we are in these matters. Improvements don’t happen unless we start talking about it,” Spicer said.

Protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, 2020. AP Photo/John Minchillo

Working with two non-fashion clients on Juneteenth activations for 2022, Burnett said the conversations take longer since companies are wary of making missteps. As an agency, Leo Burnett employees will have the day off and, as of earlier this month, there were more opportunities to discuss inclusivity and the progress since last year. The entire Publicis Groupe, which owns Leo Burnett, observed a “Pause for Action” earlier this month to discuss DEI on a global scale. And Hawkeye, another Publicis Group entity, has curated a group of Black-owned businesses to support in key areas that will be an ongoing resource on the agency’s intranet.

As for why some companies may have retrenched regarding Juneteenth, Spicer said, “In some ways, there is the reality that representation isn’t where it should be across so many industries. Recognizing and celebrating a holiday depends on enough people wanting to recognize it and prioritize that. Not only Juneteenth, but talking about matters of race and inclusion sometimes invariably unlocks some realities. Which is, we individuals, companies and organizations may not have been talking enough about it. My point of view is let’s start if we haven’t rather than yet another year [pass] where we’re going to be cautious and nervous about the conversation.”

Noticeably, companies haven’t made WWD aware of their Juneteenth plans this year as they did last.

“It’s a good observation — 2021 hasn’t had the same publicity that 2020 had,” historian Thanayi Jackson said. “The first reason is the summer of 2020 was embroiled in protests and activism. There’s a certain amount of still shock and rawness from the George Floyd murder. The summer of 2020 was a perfect storm of events. We’re dealing with the pandemic and then there’s this shocking, horrific very well-publicized long video of violence. In that context, companies were trying to find their voice…this was sort of a normal marketing thing to do.

This year companies are asking questions to ‘What now? Now that we’ve said there’s this thing called Juneteenth, how does that translate into something marketable?’” she said.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is “a beautiful idea and one that would remind us that none of us are free until we are all free,” Jackson, an associate professor of history at Cal Poly, said. “Also, Juneteenth is such a cool word [with a laugh.] People have said it’s already got its own marketing. Someone came up with this cool word and as a brand it just works.”

“While the Fourth of July was this beginning concept of freedom in America, Juneteenth is the realization of it,” she said.

Juneteenth provides an opportunity for people to consider what still needs to be done and, more than anything, Jackson said, companies could be marketing knowledge with books, lectures and educational material, and giving the stage to local grassroots organizations.

Juneteenth apparel, red apparel (“to reflect the color of sacrifice and struggle before you,” according to Jackson), church-appropriate attire and hats, recipes and Black-owned businesses are all marketing opportunities, she said, and “definitely have a place in the way that America celebrates, which is often through the consumer.”

Which companies are marking Juneteenth?

Of course, some companies are stepping forward to acknowledge Juneteenth, like Zara USA, which has made it a paid holiday for employees. The company will also provide employees with educational resources about Juneteenth and its significance throughout this week.

After formally recognizing Juneteenth for the first time last year with a message from Pete and Erik Nordstrom and a virtual event for employees to connect and learn more, Nordstrom is planning a similar approach this year. The emphasis will be on providing employees with information and resources to enable them to learn more about Juneteenth,” a company spokeswoman said.

Some employees will share what the holiday means to them on Nordstrom’s social media. “Knowing time away and holidays are important to employees,” the retailer looked at its time away offering last year and based on feedback from employees, including the company’s Black employee resource group, Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a companywide holiday, the spokeswoman said.

”There are also a few state-specific holidays, where employees get holiday pay if they work that day, including Juneteenth in Massachusetts,” she added.

Juneteenth was instated as an annual company holiday at Target last year, “giving our team space to honor Juneteenth in their own way.” This will continue this year and moving forward, a company spokeswoman said. “This year we are encouraging team members to explore opportunities to observe Juneteenth through education, service or giving.”

Black Lives Matter march on Juneteenth weekend. John Lamparski / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Target, the spokeswoman said, is “committed to standing with Black families,” and referenced the creation of its Racial Equity Action and Change committee. REACH was established to “accelerate our ongoing, diversity, equity and inclusion strategy guided by a clear mission: to create lasting, systemic change for our Black guests, team members and communities.”

H&M USA will continue to recognize Juneteenth as a paid day off for employees, although the company likes to think of it as “more as a ‘day on’ to observe, learn and honor history,” said Donna Dozier-Gordon, inclusion and diversity manager for H&M USA.

“The continued work for equity for all is ongoing, which is why we are a proud supporter of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as we believe that is the first step to equity for all is the ability to participate in an essential right in our democracy, the right to vote,” Dozier-Gordon said.

At Tapestry, Juneteenth will be a paid day off for all of its roughly 8,000 active U.S.-based employees including interns, who are temporary employees. All stores and distribution centers will remain open on June 19. However, salaried employees who work on Juneteenth will receive an extra day off and hourly staff will be paid for time worked on the holiday as well as holiday pay, a Tapestry spokesperson said.

As was the case last year, Juneteenth is an annual paid holiday for U.S. and Puerto Rican-based corporate, employees at Nike, Converse and Jordan. Nike Inc. will close corporate, retail, manufacturing and distribution operations in observance, and educational opportunities that honor Black history and culture will be offered.

Nike aspires to be a leader in building diverse and inclusive communities — “from embedding diversity, equity and inclusion education in every employee’s journey to leveraging our platform to inspire positive change in our communities,” a statement issued by a Nike spokeswoman read.

At TJX, the company “intends to honor and acknowledge this important day in American history” with its associates, but it is not a paid holiday for the company, according to a company spokesman. With education and training being “important elements” in the company’s “inclusion and diversity journey,” the company will share the history of Juneteenth via its internal intranet, “recognizing the importance of the day for all Americans especially those in the Black community, its origins and how our associates can honor it,” the statement said.

TJX will highlight some of its community partners that have Juneteenth-related offerings, including the Museum of African American History and Culture and Outdoor Afro to provide details about how employees can get involved. “We hope these efforts will commemorate Juneteenth in an engaging way for our associates and facilitate important conversations and learning along the way,” the retailer said.

At Amazon, a spokesperson said, “We don’t have any Juneteenth news to share at this time.” The company spokesperson did not respond when asked whether Juneteenth will be a paid holiday for Amazon employees, and if any major donations or marketing are planned.

With “a number of other things going on” at VF Corp., a spokesman declined comment.

At Macy’s Inc., Juneteenth will be a “day of education and acknowledgment,” with the company “focusing on colleague education,” a spokesman said. On the company’s social media channels, Juneteenth will be commemorated with special posts honoring the date, he said.

The marketing message

At marketing agency McCann, the company is trying to create a larger discussion and educate more people about the need for greater change in advance of Juneteenth by offering sessions about such topics as policing and the prison system.

In an internal memo circulated last month, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Singleton Beato said the sessions are examining the “systemic and structural dimensions of racial discrimination that are perpetuated in the U.S.” The intention is to strengthen our collective understanding of the societal issues that inform the Black Experience in America — and how the input of these issues influence our decisions and lived experiences in ways of which we may not be aware.”

There is also a PSA element titled “As a Matter of Fact: Systemic Racism Does Exist,” that will highlight “core problems our country is facing that are rooted in systemic bias, oppression and bias, as well as what each of us can do to help disrupt them,” Beato wrote.

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