Hunter Johnson is CEO of Xpedition, a creative agency that produces inclusive campaigns for brands like Google, McKinsey & Co. and YouTube.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Immortalized in the Declaration of Independence, these stirring words serve as the cornerstone of American democracy. But America today is often not reflective of these inspiring ideals: Black Americans are more than three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 149% in 2020. And more than 1 in 3 LGBTQ Americans say they experienced discrimination last year.
In 2020, just over 4 in 10 Americans (42%) told Gallup they are “extremely proud” to be an American, the lowest percentage since the company began measuring the sentiment in 2001. “The new low comes at a time when the U.S. faces public health and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd in police custody,” Gallup’s Megan Brenan wrote about the findings.
As national sentiments change, I encourage marketers to find thoughtful and nuanced ways to contribute to the conversation. Rather than posting trite words about patriotism, it’s important to reflect on the past and find meaningful ways to create change in the present. Here are four things to keep in mind when marketing your brand or product for this Fourth of July.
1. Rethink your use of the flag.
In recent years, Fourth of July advertising has become synonymous with the flag — from red, white and blue candy to flag-draped vehicles. But using the flag as a hallmark of holiday advertising typically doesn’t feel authentic or reflective of the meaning it has stood for throughout U.S. history.
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Rather than plastering the flag on your company’s social media channels this year, consider reflecting first on what it means. The original flag design symbolized a newly birthed nation established on the principles of freedom, justice and equality. Though America has often fallen short of these ideals, at its best the flag still represents the promise of better tomorrows. Instead of using the flag as a cheap marketing tactic, think of ways your advertising campaigns can stand for what is good and right. That, ultimately, is much more patriotic than peddling red, white and blue products.
2. Rethink the meaning of patriotism.
When football player Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, it ignited a nationwide firestorm. Some people believed that refusing to stand during the national anthem was unpatriotic; others argued that true patriotism is calling your country out on its shortcomings and encouraging it to live up to its ideals.
I’m thankful for all the freedoms I enjoy as an American citizen, but I also strive to make my country better for everyone. If we want America to be the best it can be, we have to acknowledge its failures openly and embrace the way forward in our marketing.
Rather than producing marketing and social media campaigns that showcase a rosy but incomplete picture of America, brands have an opportunity to call attention to societal issues that need to be addressed. Follow the example of brands like Ben & Jerry’s by speaking out when you see injustice and lobbying Congress to create necessary new laws. Find authentic ways to highlight veterans and others who have sacrificed for our country while also creating content that paves the way for a more equal America. This was our goal when we told the story of Monica Helms, a Navy veteran and transgender woman who created the transgender flag, as part of a #transvoices video series for Google.
By showing consistency in your communications and marketing campaigns, your brand can build trust with your audience. This helps consumers recognize your brand as a force for good and assures them that you won’t shy away from making the wrongs right.
3. Acknowledge the past.
July 4, 1776, was a monumental moment in history, but it was not the perfect moment we see portrayed in films and textbooks. When the Constitution was written over a decade later, each enslaved person was regarded as only three-fifths of a person. Throughout the years, America has often wielded its power to oppress others — from forcibly removing Native Americans to prohibiting Chinese people from immigrating to the U.S. Though it may feel uncomfortable or even unpatriotic to acknowledge these realities, I believe we must face them head-on to have any hope of true healing and equality.
Now more than ever, it is essential that we refuse to turn a blind eye to the stains of the past and the slew of current injustices. Ask yourself the hard questions, educate yourself and commit to doing the hard work of creating change. Think about what you want your brand to stand for, and figure out how to meaningfully contribute to improving America.
4. Be involved in the present.
I believe brands must commit to being part of the solution, not part of the problem. Consider donating a portion of your sales toward causes that are near and dear to your employees’ hearts. Create marketing campaigns that accurately reflect America by hiring women and people of color to be behind and in front of the camera.
Lastly, remember that justice and equality are not relegated to one day a year — they are things we should strive for every single day.
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Author: Hunter Johnson, Forbes Councils Member