Every February, brands suddenly find they have something to say (or sell) on social media regarding Black History Month.

But following a year of racial justice protests and more companies than ever taking a stand on social and political issues, brands are under pressure to get Black History Month 2021 right. It’s become common for brands to participate in Black History Month, but these efforts are often perceived as little more than performative activism.

Brands need to consider how they’re championing Black people, culture and achievements 365 days a year—not just for 28 days. Black History Month 2021 follows a year of brands voicing their support for Black Lives Matter and advocating for positive change in the wake of George Floyd’s death. This year, you can guarantee consumers will be watching to see if those same brands that spoke up are staying true to their word or if they’ve already moved on.

Recognizing Black History Month means brands need to go beyond marketing messages that preach solidarity but offer little action. If brands are serious about celebrating the Black community, that commitment needs to extend into all aspects of the business and become part of the fabric of a brand’s culture.

First things first: What is the purpose of Black History Month?

Black History Month celebrates Black Americans’ contributions to society and raises awareness of Black American history. It began when Carter G. Woodson, an American historian, grew frustrated with the underrepresentation of Black people in conversations that shaped American history.

Every year, a theme is applied to focus the public’s attention, with this year’s theme centering around “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”. Black History Month takes place during the month of February in the U.S. and Canada, and is recognized throughout October in the United Kingdom.

Recognize Black history 365 days a year

While they might start off with the best of intentions, brands need to consider the impact of their celebrations and recognize Black history doesn’t end when March 1 rolls around.

Take a moment to recognize your brand’s role in the conversation, question who benefits from your Black History Month ideas and consider how those ideas can become staples in your brand’s culture. Kristen Rice, a Senior Data Analyst and Black@Sprout lead, reminds brands that Black history is still being made today.

“For brands looking to celebrate Black History Month, that starts with understanding that this is more than a month,” says Rice. “Black history is not just a thing of the past, as we often treat it, but that history is now happening really within the organizations that we all work for. While we celebrate Black History as a month, brands need to continue on the journey of building a diverse, equitable and inclusive system that they promised and celebrate Black people always.”

Black History Month is not an opportunity to commercialize Black history-themed items or to appropriate Black culture for clout. There’s a fine line separating appreciation and appropriation, and companies that cross that line risk backlash from the very communities they seek to uplift.

This is the Black community’s time to shine

To avoid being labelled disingenuous or opportunistic during Black History Month 2021, brands need to prioritize Black people and their stories in everything they do. Cassandra Blackburn, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Sprout Social, encourages brands to keep the mission of Black History Month the focus of their strategies.

“As brands make plans to celebrate diverse communities through Black History Month and others, it’s important that they approach their campaigns with authenticity, empathy and cultural intelligence,” says Blackburn. “Center your campaign on advancing the mission and purpose of the celebration by seizing the opportunity to honor the accomplishments of Black Americans.”

Blackburn points to Target as one brand she admires for their work in celebrating Black History Month. “Through their partnership with the African American Business Council, an employee resource group, [Target] developed a campaign called Black Beyond Measure which amplifies success stories and celebrates Blackness. The campaign showcases products from Black-owned businesses (that are carried in their stores year-round), as well as Black entrepreneurs and Black Target team members.”

Centering Black stories starts with brands taking the time to meet their audience where they are and demonstrating they truly listen to the Black community. Keyaira Lock, a Twitter Next Brand Planner and co-chair of Blackbirds, Twitter’s employee resource group for African-Americans, has this advice to share with marketers thinking about their Black History Month strategies.

“In order to authentically connect and build trust, brands must continually identify natural opportunities to connect their brand purpose with moments the Black community cares about,” says Lock. “This level of understanding requires elevating a brand’s cultural intelligence by sincerely listening to Black stories and getting to know the nuances of their desires, dreams, fears and frustrations in order to find mutually beneficial ways to thoughtfully insert your brand.”

And while there is no gold standard for brands celebrating Black History Month, Lock sees this as an opportunity for brands to grow and set themselves up for future success. “One [action is] looking inside-out to introspectively think about what [brands] can do internally and externally to support the Black community. Thus, internal work truly allows brands to authentically shine in any cultural opportunity because it’s true to their brand purpose and who they really are.”

If brands are going to speak, they need to be prepared to act

Accountability typically follows a statement of solidarity, and brands need to be ready to show how they are backing their words up with visible action. Ty Heath, Director of the B2B Institute at LinkedIn, warns consumers are quick to call out brands that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

“Saying your brand will do better without action won’t stand up to scrutiny,” says Heath. “While many brands have shown support for social justice issues, building trust requires sustained investment—not only during Black History Month.”

She points to Ben & Jerry’s as one brand that has figured out how to be authentic with their activism. “Ben & Jerry’s has made speaking out against social justice issues part of its DNA. The journey starts with an internal conversation about uncomfortable topics we often avoid. To support your growth, incorporate diverse voices and core values into the fabric of your company’s brand and culture.”

Not only do brands like Ben & Jerry’s follow through on their promises; they also take big, bold stands that strive to move the needle on racial equality. The actions a brand takes ripples outside of the organization and can even impact society.

“As marketing professionals, we understand that brands build and influence our societies’ cultures,” says Deserrie Perez, a Strategic Marketer and co-lead of Black Inclusion Network at LinkedIn. “I deeply admire brands that have been unapologetically ambitious with their diversity, equality and inclusion efforts.”

Perez finds inspiration in brands like Salesforce, American Express, Blackrock and Microsoft. Says Perez: “These brands have made important strides in hiring diverse storytellers who bring unique and authentic stories about the Black diaspora to life by addressing real issues that impact our communities.”

Black history is more than a moment

Black History Month 2021 gives brands an opportunity to show consumers what they’ve learned following a year of social unrest and protests for racial justice. That posting a statement on social media is the bare minimum and consumers are prepared to hold brands accountable to their words. That supporting the Black community is an ongoing commitment, with the bulk of the work happening offline.

As brands prepare for their February campaigns, remember that Black history is more than a trend. Approach Black History Month with authenticity and action, but also think about how you can uplift Black communities and culture year round.

Ensure your company efforts are genuine and sustainable by prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in all parts of your business operations. Read on to learn how brands can go beyond diversity statements and integrate DEI into their strategies for long-term success.