Feb 22, 2021

When a Brand fails its Community

This timely piece by DMI member and digital marketer Vanessa Barksdale is an excellent reminder of the importance of inclusion and ensuring your customers can feel like they belong. If you want to feature in the DMI library, Share your Own Work for publication in our Community Insights!

There is a certain brand that I've acquainted myself with through a somewhat serendipitous introduction: by first seeing the brand on an episode of the late-night US TV variety show, Saturday Night Live. While I'm sure this particular brand is familiar to many people already, it was that chance encounter with a comedy sketch that endeared me to the brand's products. Very rapidly, I found myself charmed and intrigued by the brand's story and decided to look at some of its products. And so began my brief, unnecessarily tragic love affair.

I knew next to nothing about the brand, its products, or the parent company for that matter. Nevertheless, I was smitten by it all and wanted to keep an open mind. In that process, I found myself becoming more and more endeared to the brand's story as I researched the products. I even tried them for myself and legitimately enjoyed the quality and utility. There was just one nagging concern, incessantly pointing to the reason I'd never heard of the brand in the first place: there was no sign of any customer that looked remotely like me on any of their channels, paid or otherwise.

It was noticeable, and I couldn't help but ask myself, quite simply, why? Watching the brand's community interact with one another on Twitter, looking at all the pictures of the happy-go-lucky, smiling customers interacting with the product on the brand's Instagram page, I didn't see anyone looking even remotely similar to me. It felt as if I was in someone else's house, entirely. But, much more than asking myself "why?" I found myself asking if I actually belonged there. Obviously, every brand has its own target market, with its own audience personas. And again, they made excellent products, irrespective of the customer that they originally intended. But was the omission an accident, or on purpose? Was it an unrequited love story, just an unnoticed one?

The writer W.E.B. DuBois wrote about questions like these often. Known in sociological theory as Double-Consciousness, DuBois theorized that People of Color develop not only a standard self-awareness but a constant cognizance of the prejudiced way that the world may see them. Double Consciousness is a continuous tension of understanding who you are and who people with skin like yours are made out to be. And, most notably for our work, it represents an ongoing optimism for one's acceptance by a group, paired with realism in understanding that you may not.

My personal disposition lends itself to optimism, so I tried giving the brand the benefit of the doubt. I really did. After all, the products were still of excellent quality, so who cares what the actual product maker thinks? The world is big enough for both their "typical" customer and me. Yet as time passed, the doubt managed to swallow up all of the benefits that it could have, along with any delight that I may have previously had in using the product. And even when I liked the brand enough to consider being an evangelist, the idea that I might be inviting people to join a community where we weren't truly welcome squashed that desire entirely. I eventually stopped using the products altogether and just observed the brand from afar.

The brand was that of Morgan Wallen, a Country musician from Sneedville, Tennessee, whose fun and catchy music managed to charm me—a died-in-the-wool Neo-Soul fan living in the suburbs of Washington DC. His SNL skit made me laugh, and his voice impressed me. He belted a raspy song about breakups and whiskey; making me think of college boyfriends and downtown pubs. He wrote about his worry that leaving his hometown would change him; I thought about my own life, traveling the country on various campaigns.

When a Brand fails its Community

Different as our backgrounds may be, our experiences were common. I also liked seeing Morgan's unique personality, and hearing the opinions he shared online. But, on the subject of inclusion, however, he was silent. That silence was deafening to me, and ostensibly to other people of color that find themselves having to see the world through a double consciousness. To be fair, I suppose this issue isn't isolated to his brand; to date, no Black women have ever made it to Country Music's Billboard Top 50, despite a plethora of talent.

This past week's events, have been most telling. Recently, after arriving home clamorously late one evening, Morgan got into a verbal altercation with a Black neighbor. A recording of the incident taped Morgan asking a friend to "take care of this [expletive]," before heading inside for the night. To be clear, the expletive he used was an epithet to describe people that look like me. This incident felt like an answer to the question of whether people that look like me are welcome in Morgan Wallen's fan base. The answer seems to be "no." "Disappointed" is the most charitable word for an emotion I have yet to name.

This story isn't meant to be a politically-charged schmaltz or a formal rescission of my membership from the Wallen Fan Club (although, it's obvious that I will not be reinstating). This isn't even an indictment of Country music. This is a very high-level appeal to both the business sense and humanity to which marketing professionals are so attuned.

My appeal is this: You do not have to craft a brand story that is bland, shapeless, or inauthentic to make your customers feel welcome in your community. You just need to affirm that all of your customers belong. It is possible to assure our customers that they truly belong, both in speech and in practice, while being true to ourselves.

What allows resonance to exist between a brand with a completely separate audience demographic and me is nothing more than a shared humanity. As marketers, we have to assure our customers that our brand's community is special because of our many differences, not in spite of their existence.

And, importantly, we must understand that fear is not a good reason to avoid the topic of inclusion. If we want our customers to take a chance on us by being advocates for our brand, it is the least we can do to take a chance on them and advocate for their social welfare.

As the great poet Audre Lord once said, "To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death...I was going to die, if not sooner than later whether or not I had ever [spoken up for] myself. My silence had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you."

Vanessa Barksdale
Vanessa Barksdale

Vanessa Barksdale is the Founder and Principal Consultant for Modernist Communication Strategies, a mission-driven digital marketing agency based in Greater Washington, DC. When she's not thinking about how to help nonprofit organizations more effectively communicate their ideas, she is probably spending time at home with her chihuahua. Learn more about Modernist Communications.

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