Through a cultural lens, the dominance of one group over another is known as hegemony. Hegemony works through the definition of defaults and the othering of that which is different. It makes the societal order as it stands seem right, natural, and always unquestionable.
Gatekeepers work to maintain the hierarchy by controlling access to information and power and by working to shape a society’s collective understanding of the world. For those benefiting from or maintaining the hierarchy, their role is often invisible – even to themselves. This ability to disguise constructions of dominance as simply the natural order is the power of hegemony.
This moment in which we find ourselves is a rare one.
The Black Lives Matter movement has built a new pillar of social power. From this platform, the movement has revealed how dreadfully unnatural our order is. This moment gives us a chance at far-reaching structural change that goes beyond the incrementalism that so often plagues causes for equality. Given this opportunity to remake our country as a place of improved equality, we must seize it before it fades.
We all have a role to play in this transformation. As a democratic society, we are burdened with our founders’ mission to always strive toward “a more perfect union.” This lofty ambition of continuous improvement is a uniquely American gift – and a patriotic demand.
While it may seem strange that we as marketers must take a hand in shaping our society into something better, it is true that we must. Many marketers have already started. We see this not only in a brand’s charitable actions and commitments that go beyond the normal purview of “just marketing” but also in the familiar world of branding, where pantry staples like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have chosen to rebrand as they find themselves not just out of step with society, but misaligned with the values those brands wish to hold.
The retirement of racial stereotypes from these brands is welcome and beyond overdue, but there is more to issues surrounding representation of people of color. To simply end poor representation and replace it with no representation is the opposite of a solution. It plays into the hands of hegemony by obscuring diversity and continuing a narrative of whiteness as default. As misrepresentations are eliminated, strong and diverse representations of people of color need to overflow across our TV spots, print ads, and packaging.
Take a second and think of the cultural artifacts you have come in contact with today. How many of them were planned and orchestrated experiences of branding? From TV spots to your cup of coffee, for the majority of us, the answer is, “Most of them.” This speaks to the opportunity we have as marketers to confront hegemony through improved representation. We have the chance to assist in the struggle for equality by changing the way people experience our brands. We have the opportunity to replace the misrepresentations that we have helped construct with an infusion of humanizing messaging.
We cannot shrink from this responsibility.
As we look about ourselves and at the chance at change that we are experiencing, we have the ability to take action to ensure that it does not fizzle. We may not be politicians or social workers or even consider ourselves to be activists. But we as marketers are gatekeepers, and it is time that we ask ourselves, For whom do we open this gate, and what does it guard?