In Conversation

Talking to your customers about race and racism

Backstory founder Callia Hargrove on how and why brands should speak out, and how to build an inclusive marketing culture.

Callia Hargrove
Callia Hargrove

America’s reckoning this week with racism, police violence, inequality, and privilege has also drawn what feels like unprecedented attention to whether and how brands communicate and act around social movements like Black Lives Matter.

In the past, it may have seemed normal for brands to “sit out” of what has become a weeklong national conversation on systemic racism and police brutality.

But as brands increasingly portray themselves as social and cultural leaders, and take more of a direct voice as publishers — especially on social media — it has become more of a responsibility for them to participate. Consumers, especially younger ones, expect it, and make purchasing decisions based on it.

“You have to be really blind to not see what’s going on right now,” says Callia Hargrove, who has worked at fashion and media brands like Teen Vogue and Calvin Klein and recently founded Backstory, a marketing and social media strategy consultancy focused on telling stories “through the lens of diversity and inclusion.”

“In my mind, it’s a responsibility,” Hargrove says. “And I know it’s a tricky thing. But to ignore what’s going on is socially irresponsible.”

The problem is that many — if not most — brands are ill-equipped to participate in a national conversation about race. That’s largely because executive teams and corporate boards remain overwhelmingly white. Hargrove’s goal is to help brands get better at solving more of those problems by amplifying voices, creating career opportunities, and showcasing “the amazing work that people of color can do.”

“I was planning on launching the business later this month,” Hargrove says. “But just as I was watching what was going on on Instagram, seeing certain brands that I had respected really missing the mark — sending out messaging that I’m sure doesn’t align with their business goals and the consumers that they want to reach — I realized there’s a lot of work that needs to be done right now.”

Hargrove and I spoke yesterday about how brands should approach talking about race right now, how to make lasting changes, and what young consumers expect of them. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Frommer: Should brands be talking about race right now?

Callia Hargrove: I think that they should be. Definitely. You have to be really blind to not see what’s going on right now. I’ve been seeing a lot of brands not saying anything and then coming out with things that feel like empty promises. And consumers are very reflective of that.

One of the things that I have been doing as part of my own activism is just watching the response — especially in the comments section — with some of these brands that ignored what was going on, and then all of a sudden saw that other brands were having success and being praised for speaking out. In my mind, it’s a responsibility. And I know it’s a tricky thing. But to ignore what’s going on is socially irresponsible.

I’ve been seeing brands that are doing the work being praised and receiving way more business because of it. So yeah, they need to be speaking out about racism. I know the word racism can be biting, but it’s the reality of what’s going on.

That’s why brands need to be partnering with — whether it’s consulting firms like mine, or just voices that are already within the company and listening to them. That can get tricky because no one wants to feel like they’re being tokenized. But at the same time, there’s a way to do that properly.

By ignoring it, you’re really making a big business statement that says you don’t care about Black voices and you don’t care about what happens to Black people in this country.

How should brands approach this — not just now in this crisis, but also on an ongoing basis?

I’ve come up with three major keys for success — right now, but also beyond. Because there is change that needs to be made beyond this. It’s a starting point, but we do need to go further. 

The first one is just: Be honest. 

It’s okay to have made mistakes in the past, but you have to own them. I’ve seen so many brands admitting to past mistakes, and that really does seem to go a long way in the hearts of consumers. But you don’t want to get caught in a situation where you essentially pretend your shit doesn’t stink and then commenters pull up receipts that say otherwise.

Yesterday I was going through Instagram and I saw a brand I really respected and was even thinking of working at. And they had this big manifesto saying: “We’re really trying to make changes, we are doing xyz, we’re donating to xyz.” In theory, a great thing. But when I looked through the comments, a lot of people were saying: “Your masthead isn’t reflective of what you’re saying. It’s completely white. We don’t see any people of color on your masthead.” And, you know, they’re right. 

If they would have been honest from the beginning — “We’ve made mistakes in the past. We really are devoted to trying to bring more people of color in.” —  that actionable thing along with saying how you’ve messed up in the past really goes a long way.

Be honest. Just be honest from the beginning and then people won’t call you out.

And then number two: Commit to doing the work. 

These brands really need to be committed to making lasting change. People need to evaluate what your staff looks like. And if there isn’t a person of color on every team, you need to fix that. You need to make sure there’s representation across the board and really invest in amplifying voices of color.

I saw that there’s a movement going around right now called #pulluporshutup, started by a woman named Sharon Chuter. It’s asking for consumers to push brands to reveal the number of Black employees that they employ at the corporate and executive level. If a brand really wanted to be ahead of the game, you could release that information yourself, along with a pledge for how you’re planning to do better in the future. 

I think that really shows a commitment to doing the work and going beyond this moment. Because everybody can see that it’s trending and there’s a lot of performative activism going on, especially at the brand level. And it’s really important to, yes, do the talking, but also walk that walk and really commit to making change from the inside as well as on the outside. 

My last point would be: Amplify, amplify, amplify.

I think for a lot of people in positions of power, it’s sort of as if the blinders have been taken off, and they’re really awakened to a whole new reality. But there are people that have been doing the work to diversify and push inclusion in their industries for years. And there’s been a lot of erasure going on and people are wanting to create new structures.

I saw yesterday that an influencer I follow, she started a new page that set out to highlight businesses of color, but it really came across as being self-serving. I don’t think that was the intended result. But that’s how it came across. There were lots of comments, again, saying: “You really need to just amplify the pages. You have a huge following. Why don’t you just share pages that are already doing this work?”

She could have used that as an opportunity to amplify those voices and instead chose to create a different structure, which blew up and made a mess of things. 

Brands really don’t need to use this as a self-serving moment and contribute to the erasure of hard work or businesses of people of color. Work with the people that are already doing the work and amplify those voices, versus trying to create something of your own. Because it’s probably not going to have the result that you want.

Should brands be engaging in the comments? Should they be responding?

I think you definitely need to respond. My background is in social media — I’ve done a lot of community management. I used to do community management specifically at Ann Taylor Loft. I learned a lot about having to respond to comments and what it means, also, if you don’t respond. People will feel ignored, especially voices of color. 

A lot of the work that I’ve just been doing over the past few days is leaving comments on brand pages saying: “With respect, you might want to do xyz.” or “You have erred in this way, and this is what you should do.” 

But I’ve also seen brands removing comments like that, and that is not the way to go. You do not want to be caught doing that because the internet is fast and swift and people are screenshotting and you will get caught doing it. So that’s not the move, definitely. 

You should respond. But you need to be smart about your response. You need to think ahead of the game. Do the research within your own company. Know where your faults are so that people can’t call them out. And that goes back to the “be honest” thing.

Responses work. I’ve seen certain brands that have been responsive — even to me. 

I follow one influencer, and I asked her the other day when the “Blackout” challenge was going on… Her comment was just, sort of, “You know, I feel bad about what’s going on…” But I responded, and I said, “It really would be great if you would link to some causes or businesses and highlight them here.” And she was very responsive and amazing. She changed the caption and it really was a learning experience.

Brands can learn by reading those comments and really taking into account what people are saying — and not be upset when they see responses like that, but rather using it as a learning experience to make their businesses better.

Do you think consumers expect this of them at this point? Like, do you think people make business and association decisions based on how brands operate in, specifically, these types of situations and events?

I do think that consumers expect it at this point. Over the past few years and with the election of Donald Trump — and watching how that unfolded on social media — I think social responsibility, especially on social media, has really become a lot more important. 

You have big brands, like, let’s say, Nike — people are expecting Nike to make a statement about these things. Whereas I don’t know if ten years ago that would be the case. The Instagram of today is a very different Instagram than the one in 2010. I think people are expecting brands like that — and even smaller brands — to be socially responsible and make that change.

I’ve seen the success of brands that do make statements from the beginning. 

Like Parade, let’s say — it’s a millennial focused underwear brand. They recently pivoted their newsletter to providing resources around protesting, after they probably realized that a lot of their customers have been out protesting and wouldn’t want to just see another email pushing a product. It became a big win for them. I saw a lot of people screenshotting the email and putting it in their Stories being, like: “Go, Parade. This is really cool.” 

I know it’s easier for a smaller brand to be doing reactive marketing in that way. But I do think it’s the responsibility of bigger brands as well to be thinking of that and learning and taking notes from these smaller brands, and noticing how successful they are because they’re speaking out about issues and devoting the time and energy to them.

How do you do this with sincerity? Is it important to be early? Is more important how you communicate it? 

One brand I reached out to was Yeti, the cooler brand. They hadn’t posted anything on Instagram by Tuesday. And then they just posted the blank, black square with #BlackoutTuesday.

How do you be genuine and do this in a way that’s good — and not in a way that’s tacky or seems fake?

It’s sort of a two-pronged thing in my mind. It is important to be early. But if you don’t have the structures in place to make a statement that is going to be socially responsible and reflective of your brand values, then you should wait.

I’ve seen — sort of what you’re seeing with Yeti — I saw happen with a beauty brand that I follow in the clean beauty space.

They didn’t post anything, and one of my friends — who also happens to be a social marketer — she commented and was like, “You know, guys, you’re late.” And they’re like, “We don’t work on the weekends. We’re not making a statement.” 

And of course, the comment blew up. And then they proceeded to post something. And it was horrible. You could tell it was rushed. You could tell that they don’t have people of color working on the staff that would have been able to vet the message. 

Not that it’s the responsibility of those people. People that are Black or people of color that are working in corporate environments — they don’t want to be tokenized, but at the same time, we’re used to doing the work in times when we shouldn’t. It’s unfortunate, but that is the plight of being a person of color working in corporate environments. So we would probably rather you ask us. You should have, I would hope, a group of people that can contribute. 

You don’t want to be putting out messaging that isn’t reflective of your business and just gets thrown out and doesn’t make sense, and then that’s an even bigger firestorm.

If you can be early and you have the infrastructure to be able to be early and have it make sense, do that. But if you’re late to the game, make sure that you’re really taking the time to create something that isn’t just fluff and just a black box that is not really saying anything. 

Say: “We’re devoted to doing xyz. We have donated to xyz. We are now partnering with these people in the space and amplifying their voices.” 

But if you’re coming late to the game, don’t have it be empty and something that says nothing.

How do you make sure that this actually stays a priority and isn’t just a crisis response where people lose focus?

It really comes down to investing and realizing that this is more than a trending topic. It’s work that needs to be done.

And it’s probably work that has needed to be done at a lot of these companies for years and just kept getting pushed to the back burner. They felt that they could be diverse by just hiring one Black person or one woman or one person of another color.

Look at the marketing that you’re doing.  Do you notice that in all of your campaigns, there’s only one token person of color? Is it reflective of the the world that we live in? People want to see marketing that reflects the world that they live in. 

When I think of how many amazing people that are Black and really should be in leadership positions, and just don’t… I know that I’ve been passed up for certain opportunities. And obviously I can’t say it’s because I’m Black. But I have watched coworkers that are not Black and did the exact same work as I did get pushed to the top in ways that I haven’t seen other Black employees get pushed to the top.

So that work needs to be done, in terms of really having people in leadership positions, so that when a statement needs to go out, you have someone that can vet it and can say: “This is the wrong move.”

Are there any brands and companies that you think do this consistently well?

Parade is definitely one. Glossier, too. As a marketer, I have a lot of respect for Glossier. But they also made a huge donation and again committed to investing in and highlighting Black voices. 

I see a lot of people that I know in their advertising and it’s so diverse — not only in terms of color, but also with age and things like that. I know that’s not the conversation that’s happening right now. But as a Black woman, I know how it feels to be disenfranchised and I really try to not only be an ally to other Black people, but an ally to other disenfranchised groups. 

Do you think it’s any coincidence that those are younger brands?

No. I don’t think so at all. From my work at Teen Vogue — that job really opened my eyes to what the future can look like, and that people that are younger demand these things. 

It’s not like my parents’ generation where it was like, “It’d be nice if they would feature people that look like us, but, uh, you know, we’re not expecting it.” 

People that are younger, they demand that. Their understanding of their own economic power is amazing.

I’ve seen brands in the past week just lose so much business because people are like, “Guys, we’re not shopping with them.” It’s all on social media — people collectively coming together. “We’re not giving our money to this business. Let’s move over to this other brand that we’re going to tag in the comments of this brand that kind of messed up.”

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence at all. And I think that a lot of older brands can really learn from these younger brands and how reactive they’re being.

Just employ some of their strategies, honestly. Because they are successful and gaining ground — because of their reactivity and how much they’re willing to invest in amplifying the voices of people of color. And showing them in campaigns. And creating products for them as well — that’s a big thing. Making products for people that look like me.

There’s a lot of work to be done. But these younger brands are doing the work, and doing it from inception, which I think is really helping them gain market share.

Dan Frommer

Hi, I’m Dan Frommer and this is The New Consumer, a publication about how and why people spend their time and money.

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