What brands can learn from the Tokyo Olympics about reaching Black Americans

Getty Images
Getty Images

A post-Olympic lens.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics was anticlimactic, or simply problematic, for many Black Americans. 

If Black America determines something has slighted them, there is a good chance they won’t tune in. Despite being filled with stunning performances, The Games did not have the draw among Black Americans it has had for decades. What went wrong this time? Why were the Olympics added to the growing list of events that the Black community looks at critically, while maintaining tremendous patriotism?  

The symbolic influence of the Olympics has consistently transcended the world’s wounds of the time. The games have been the platform for athletes to bring attention to causes they care about on an international stage. So when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned self-expression, and cited Black Lives Matter as an example, Black America was reminded of the sting of racism and social injustice at the center of the movement. 

Community reaction was swift and vocal. Black Americans and allies rejected this decision on social media and encouraged others to boycott the 2020 Games. The IOC’s choice to cite BLM as an example triggered widespread disappointment and cries of unfairness. 

Context matters. The IOC made this decision exactly one year after a summer of international social unrest. Global brands can learn crystal clear lessons from the IOC’s mistake when navigating cultural sensitivity. It is not always what you say as a brand, but how and when you say it.  

Managing international cultural subtext certainly feels like a new normal. As this continues, how will your brand, or the brands you represent, respond and adapt? Advertisers fund large sporting events like the Olympics, so it is imperative that we adjust going forward.  

Here are three steps brands should consider to build meaningful engagement with Black audiences as they look ahead to the 2024 Olympics in Paris, and every major event in between. 

1. Timing and context matter

It doesn’t take a nuanced analysis to anticipate that a policy announcement referencing BLM one year after the organization’s most pivotal year would trigger a negative reaction, even with the best of intentions. Brands need to consider placing executives with a cultural lens in positions where it can be applied at the right time.  

2. Consider your brand’s desired place in history

Brand legacies are determined by being on the right side of history and understanding the prevailing sentiment at the time. Sometimes, brands choose to stand up for an idea that hasn’t yet found widespread support; others, they will have support from the people. 

Before this year’s games, Toyota decided to halt in-country advertising as negative sentiment about public safety and Covid-19 grew in Japan. This was a reasoned decision to avoid alienating a core constituency. Brands that make themselves known at those key times, and on meaningful issues, will be effective with the Black audience as well.

3. Build an always-on presence with the Black community 

Staying connected and engaged on the issues and needs of this key audience is required to earn their dollars and their loyalty. Always-on messaging approaches are routinely built for the mainstream audience. Brands can gain a lot from applying that same strategy to the Black audience as they become more adept at listening and responding in real time. Advertisers put themselves at a disadvantage when they elect to engage solely during Black History Month or major sporting events.

Damian Benders is general manager of B Code Media.

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