Still Dreaming of Diversity: Lessons From Tom Burrell & MLK

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  • by Marcus Hill

The United States is increasingly becoming a more ethnically diverse country. Asian households have the largest household income among all racial and ethnic groups, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In California, Hispanics/Latinos are the largest racial or ethnic group, making California the third state behind Hawaii and New Mexico where white residents are not the clear majority. Looking at both race and gender, black women are earning college degrees at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

The color of this country is literally changing in front of us, and the largest companies realize that general market campaigns are not enough to establish their brands with different ethnic demographics. Tom Burrell, a pioneer in target marketing and Founder of Burrell Communications—the largest African American advertising agency in the U.S.—recognized what companies were getting wrong in targeting African Americans. Burrell’s famous tagline is, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.” The thinking behind this statement was grounded in the way that the industry has traditionally approached target marketing to African American consumers.

Generally, the thought was that if you use the same strategy, complete with the same messaging and execution, and just switch out the race of the individuals in the ad, you have created a successful campaign to target African Americans consumers. Burrell understood that in order for a brand message to truly resonate with African Americans, brands have to recognize African Americans are a distinct community, different from white Americans, with their own unique culture and historical challenges that impact present day life. Recognizing these facts results in targeted brand messaging that acknowledges experiences, tastes, cultural expressions, and language, among others, have unique interpretations within the black community. This insight is not isolated to just African Americans, but it is one that still escapes modern brand strategies. This insight in no way is meant to say that African Americans are a monolithic group. However, prior to Burrell, brands’ perspectives about targeted marketing was that everyone can be reached using one general market ad catered to white Americans.


H&M featuring a black child in a “Coolest monkey in the jungle,” hooded sweatshirt, Adidas’ celebration of black History Month with a collection of all white sneakers, or Nivea producing ads featuring the tagline “white is purity,” are just a few of the latest examples of companies stirring outrage from consumers for their perceived lack of sensitivity to African Americans. The perception was that these ads and product promotions were insensitive and in some cases racist, being reminiscent of a time where this type of language was pervasively used to support black marginalization and outright violence against black citizens.

To be clear, I’m not making the argument that these brands are racist, and all of these cases were not universally perceived as racist by African Americans. Mistakes happen. Unfortunately for brands, these mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. In each of the circumstances outlined above, backlash quickly spread and several high-profile celebrities severed their ties with some of these companies.

So how does a brand avoid making these same mistakes?


We all have bias. When it comes to human beings, we are drawn to people who look like us and share our cultural preferences. Another way of saying bias is prejudice. Prejudice is the feeling. It’s that “good feeling” you can get about a person because of a similarity you both have, or it can be that “bad feeling” you get about a person based on the opposite.

The problem with prejudice is that once the belief in the stereotype about a group of people is accepted and turned into action, it becomes discrimination. For the record, discrimination can exist in the absence of prejudice or bias (that is a discussion worthy of its own blog post). A repeated pattern of discrimination results in racism: the arrangement of social structures that support patterns of discriminatory behaviors based solely on someone’s race.

So how does this apply to a marketing campaign?

The conversation around racism and bias in the United States has turned into a conversation about one’s intent and moral character.

“This person is a good person, so how could they be racist? This person does not have any hatred in their heart toward African Americans, so the behaviors this person is expressing is clearly not racist.”

This logic is incorrect. It can be surmised in these short words: it’s not about being a good person or one having a good moral compass; it’s about the existence of a pattern of behavior that continues to contribute to the marginalization of a group based on their race. Someone can be a good person and still exhibit biased behaviors. This is the type of behavior that fosters the racist society in which we live. It’s in the air we breathe every day; it’s in the water, it’s in the food. And sometimes it seeps into the work we do, including efforts to target African Americans or feature black models and actors in national campaigns.

In some cases, it’s more overt and explicit. In other cases, it’s covert and implicit. The intent does not matter. The focus should not be on the person’s moral character. The focus should be on the behavior, the pattern, and the real-world impact that behavior has on a group of people. Part of recognizing bias is doing the work to learn about historical racial patterns, as well as current patterns. It is unfair and quite frankly not the job of African Americans in a person’s network, to do the educating. There are plenty of scholars, writers, and podcasts to help begin this education.

Most executives at companies and leaders at marketing and advertising agencies are white. As the largest and wealthiest racial group in this country, a white individual’s explicit or implicit behaviors in regard to race have real-world consequences for African Americans. It’s not until there’s a realization that racial bias exists that companies and their leadership can begin to understand how insensitive brand messaging can impact people’s lives.


Diversity and representation need to be more than buzzwords. Companies cannot properly target African Americans and other ethnic groups, having little to no representation from that group playing a role in the execution of the overall strategy. Representation allows nuances to be brought to life, that would have otherwise gone ignored.

Diversity and representation should not be words used exclusively for targeting African Americans. True diversity helps foster greater creativity. Having greater diversity in an organization (racial diversity, gender diversity, ethnic diversity, LGBTQ, differently abled, different religious affiliations, and individuals who occupy one or more of these spaces) means there are multiple perspectives looking at the same problem and developing innovative solutions.


Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced the ideals that diversity can foster new and innovative ideas. Although sexism within the Civil Rights Movement was rampant and led to very few black women in leadership, behind the scenes King worked with black women like Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Dorothy Height in organizing voter registration drives, marches, and sit-ins, including the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marches.

On August 28, 1963, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, “I Have a Dream” was not the original speech. The original line where King inserted “I Have a Dream” was, “now let us go back to our communities as members for the society for creative dissatisfaction.” Several minutes into his speech, King realized the original scripted message was not getting through to the audience. Keenly aware of his target audience, King went off script, “Go back! Go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities!”

By this time, King’s entourage of advisors and organizers standing behind him on the stage realized that he’d gone off script. It was at this moment that famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled, “tell them about the dream, Martin!” Jackson had heard King give several speeches about his “dream” to church congregations and she knew it would resonate with the crowd that day at the Lincoln Memorial. Where would King’s speech be if Mahalia Jackson, a black woman who was not a civil rights leader, had not been allowed into King’s inner circle and present on that stage to encourage King to talk about his “dream?” If diversity in representation could lead to one of the most powerful and remembered speeches of the 20th century, imagine what the same principles of diversity, coupled with a deeper understanding of implicit biases and its effect, could do for brands and their marketing strategies.