Can #Woke Branding Be Authentic?
The Black creatives behind #HellaJuneteenth launch design agency to amplify social justice causes rather than react to them.
The commercial begins with a tall, lanky model posing for a photo in the doorway of a street-level shop. However, it’s not the photographer she’s paying attention to: she’s focused on the protesters marching by. Compelled by the activist’s energy, she leaves the photoshoot to join the march, dramatically pulling off her wig, wiping off her makeup, and changing into a more casual set of clothes as she does so. A racially and gender diverse group of individuals smile and wave at the camera, signaling to viewers their approval of the situation.
Then, the camera cuts back to the model, in the crowd, with a bright idea. With a glimmer in her eye, she charges to the front of the protest line, confronts a group of police officers, and hands a particularly attractive-looking officer a can of soda. He cracks it open and drinks. The crowd cheers.
When Pepsi released their 2017 commercial with Kendall Jenner the company became the object of international criticism. The ad was not only tone deaf — after all, if you think protestors’ beef with police is all about their different taste in soda, you’re missing the point — but also demonstrated the consequences of poor corporate representation. Many critics squarely placed blame for the cringe-worthy ad, which suggested Jenner was at a Black Lives Matter Protest, on the lack of diversity at the company. The assumption was that if a Black people had a seat at the board room table, such an ad would have never existed (Pepsi never revealed demographic data for the in-house marketing team which created the ad).
A particularly popular tweet authored by the comedian and writer Travon Free put it succinctly: “the Kendall Jenner Pepsi fiasco is a perfect example of what happens when there’s no black people in the room when decisions are being made.”
Chijioke Amah, a user experience designer living in the Bay Area, has an updated take. “That’s being reactive,” he says of the ad. Marketers see a grave injustice happen, and decide that is the moment to take a social stand, even though they hadn’t been doing the work before, he explains. This, Amah says, is an example of “inauthentic storytelling” — the multilayered consequence of not having Black perspectives in the room when major decisions are made. “You think this is the right thing to do, that this is the right type of content to speak to that [injustice] — and it was completely tone deaf.”
That’s why Amah, along with Joy Ekuta, Ajene Green and Quinnton Harris, have co-founded their own design studio to fix this problem. The Oakland-based studio, called Retrospect, is made up of a team of Black creatives who want to help brands more tactfully craft social impact-driven messages. Their clients span from large corporations in the automotive and retail space to smaller, digitally-based brands, for whom they help teams strategize their user experience and creative direction.
The goal, they say, is to work with these brands to devise “counter-intuitive” solutions — rather than crafting reactionary campaigns, they want to help brands reimagine their value proposition and think about how they can make social impact a core element of their product. They plan to match newer brands to those with existing cultural heft — similar to how Beyonce’s Ivy Park collaborated with Adidas, for example — and help big brands develop stronger relationships with the young, socially-conscious consumer. Diversity is their strength: not only is it an all-Black team, but also one that is neurodiverse, gender-diverse, and skills-diverse, with members’ backgrounds all adjacent to tech, but ranging from sales to design. “Not only will we be invited to the table, but it’s actually our table,” explains Amah. “When we have everybody here, we can’t really miss the mark.”
The four founders first met as part of the group Hella Creative, which created the #HellaJuneteenth campaign last year to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The group created an online signature campaign to pressure companies to acknowledge the holiday, and ultimately gathered commitments from 655 of them including Twitter, Netflix, and Buzzfeed. Their work was a key factor in getting several states and, ultimately, the federal government to officially celebrate Juneteenth this year. Quinnton Harris, one of the co-founders of Retrospect, co-founded Hella Creative, while Amah, Ekuta, and Green participated in the #HellaJuneteenth campaign.
But if there’s one thing the team at Retrospect makes clear, it’s that they don’t believe in centering social justice just one day out of the year. Though the studio’s founders expect to be hired for some diversity and inclusion-centric campaigns — as is par for the course as a Black studio, they say — they’re most excited about making evergreen brand stories more inclusive from the start.
“When people see a group like ours, it’s easy to just automatically think ‘oh, that’s just a multicultural agency,” explains Ekuta. “What we’re trying to show is that the types of solutions that we come up with, for any sort of business problem, will be different because we have a different lense, a different perspective, and a different way of approaching it because of our experiences.”
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