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Branding So White. Why?

Mark Ritson is one of the world’s best-known branding authorities. He is also one of my favorites because of his clear-eyed, intelligent assessments of brands. But mostly, I think, it’s his call-it-like-I-see-it attitude that attracts me and, probably, all his other legions of fans. It was Ritson who convened the notorious public debate, Brand Valuation: Brilliant or Bullshit? in 2015. More recently he wrote, If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members? It is a scathing indictment of the many global brands that are blatantly hypocritical about race. On the one hand, they are piously running ads proclaiming support of #BlackLivesMatter and the people demonstrating peacefully all around the world. But, in their board rooms, it’s all lily white, with no evidence that anything is ever going to change there. It reminded me of a time when Boardwalk was starting out and I had a conversation about race with my (then) partner, an asian woman. She asked why almost everybody in the world of graphic design was white. We ran through all of our associates and contacts who were active, professional designers. About 80% were white, about 17% asian, a couple of latinos and zero blacks. It was just a small, un-scientific sampling, true, but it seemed like evidence of a larger, systemic issue. Since the problem seemed beyond our capabilities to solve, we just shrugged our shoulders and moved on. But that’s not an option any more.

Although it took a shameful series of crimes to get here, culminating in the brutal murder of George Floyd, we now have an opportunity – a duty – to look inward. We must each examine our own souls and acknowledge our own roles in the construction of systemic racism. We must characterize when we were guilty of it, when we were complicit to it, or when we genuinely were unwitting participants. And if we were unwitting, was it because we didn’t want to see? Did we turn a blind eye when we should have stared down evil? We must at least confess these things to ourselves, if to no one else.

We should each examine our own professions and ask why so few opportunities exist for people of color. To that end, I emulated Mark Ritson’s article and looked at some of America’s biggest branding consultancies. Last Friday, I went to the websites of six large firms and looked at the profiles of the leadership teams they listed there. And I charted their ethnicities. I have no specific reason for selecting these firms. There are probably a hundred more like them but I don’t have the bandwidth to investigate them all. I picked these firms because I know them and admire their work.

Black people make up 13% of the total US population. And yet, out of 157 senior branding executives, only two are black. Again, to be fair, this is far from a scientific sampling. In fact there are some pretty big caveats.

• In some cases, I had to guess at the person’s ethnicity. For instance, a woman with a Hispanic name may have come to it through marriage. Whenever in question, I voted “not white” so as to avoid painting a picture that is worse than it is.

• Some with Hispanic names were running offices in Spain or Latin America. I’m pretty sure they were recruited locally. Make of that what you will.

• Lippincott listed 77 leaders. Hard to believe they were all truly senior managers. If we narrowed their listing to just the top 20 or so, that might well eliminate their one black leader, who looks very young.

So I’m not pretending this is a perfectly accurate depiction of reality. Still.

In this remarkable time when there is actually a possibility to do some real good, it is incumbent on us not to turn away from this picture. Branding professionals can’t just shrug our shoulders and go back to minding our own business as my partner and I did so many years ago. Not this time. But what can we do?

First let’s face the music. Let’s admit that systemic racism has infected our profession too, and we let it happen. Let’s dedicate ourselves to ridding ourselves of it. Let’s petition senior management at firms like those in the table, to install more people of color at the top now.

Then let’s urge them to recruit more people of color in entry level positions and provide them with a clear career path. Find them mentors and give them opportunities to learn and grow. Promote from within.

Monitor the situation. Conduct regular self-audits and honestly assess the firm’s progress in becoming more inclusive. Be transparent with your findings and, if progress is not being made, try harder.

I can hear the objections. We can’t find talented candidates. Design schools are not graduating enought people of color.

So we have to lean on the design schools. They have to be more aggressive about bringing talented students in from underserved communities. Schools need to find these kids and train them. But it will take a new kind of training because these kids will bring something to the table that has never been there before. They’ll bring new experiences, a new vision and a new way of expressing themselves visually.

Teachers from kindergarten to grad school have to see these kids, listen to their voices and value their work. Elementary teachers need to avoid discouraging students of color while constantly praising white kids. In design schools, instructors should not try to compel students to emulate standards that were produced by our mostly white past. Saul Bass was a great designer but he should not represent the one and only benchmark of greatness. These new voices will bring their own points of view. We should welcome them and celebrate them and not try to design the blackness out of them. Whenever black people have had genuine access to a profession, all they’ve ever done is make it better.

There – I’ve solved systemic racism in the branding profession in less than 1,000 words. How easy was that? Kidding aside, I know it will be a hard-fought battle going forward. But we can’t ever turn away from the fight again.

By the way, I’m not exempting myself from culpability. Although Boardwalk has no employees, I examined the full roster of freelancers I put on my teams. The result pretty much matched the pattern you see in the table. Luckily, just before I started writing this blog post, I was contacted by an African American writer. Judging from his online presence, he’s very good and has an innate understanding of branding. Hope to bring him aboard a project soon. And I’ll be actively looking for more creatives of color to bring onto Boardwalk teams.

Just one more coda: Apologies to the models in the stock photo. Did not mean to imply you’re racists.


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