We are not your Tokens

We are not your Tokens

I was born and raised in a major Midwestern city. Like any other cold, inland metropolis, the trendiest bars today often have arcade games that consume tokens like an 18-year-old charges his credit card. I found myself at one of these fashionable establishments recently and had a thought about another venue where tokens have long had a home. Deep in the leather-lined front pocket of well-known companies that practice tokenism.

Refresher on tokenism; Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1993) asserted that a token employee is usually part of a “socially-skewed group” of employees who belong to a minority group that constitutes less than 15% of the total employee population of the workplace. This still applies today to employees in the workforce, as well as in many other aspects of interactions between brands and minorities.

Hispanic Marketing Tokenism Strategy

Now that we are in the last few days of Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) (Sept 15 – Oct 15), many of the large firms are scrambling to tell us (Latinos) how much they care about our culture(s). In reality, they could just state how important our purchasing power is to their long-term growth strategy.

Not all firms do this. Many companies know how to execute an authentic Hispanic-focused campaign quite well. However, I have noted over my past 10 years in the multicultural marketing industry that some brands just don’t get it.

I have learned to beware the brands that focus only on an HHM celebration. They often are the ones least in touch with their Hispanic employees and/or consumers. They hope that a quick fix will be to show off their fun acronym of an employee resource group (LEON or HPA anyone?), cater some tacos, play some Elvis Crespo, and check that multicultural box, which certifies that the company cares about diversity. My advice to the reader is to not allow your company to put forth an effort that may be insincere and do not allow yourself to be tokenized. Allow me to explain how this occurs.

Problem with Tokenism Today

Helen Kim Ho discusses in her column about non-profit tokenism that many token people of color are asked to join special councils, round tables, task forces and more but that seats on the board remain homogenous. If a brand or organization showed their focus on diversity, that they got over their tendency to select people that look and act like themselves, by selecting and empowering a person of color for a high level board or employment position, that would really be something.

This is illustrated well by Kim Ho’s article on non-profit tokenism, where she states that people of color are expected to volunteer their stories of success, hardship, or trauma while the predominantly white organizers of the non-profit are paid for their efforts. She goes on to state that, “While not every storyteller can be compensated, recruiting people of color to support an organization that doesn’t value people of color enough to hire or pay them is the ultimate in tokenizing.”

How Companies use their Tokens

Some of the key campaigns where companies use people of color as tokens:

  1. Hosting a diversity event in which they bring outsiders to discuss a minority topic
  2. Interviewing people of color for a blog, podcast, etc to discuss HHM

Now, these campaigns are seemingly altruistic, if there is a benefit to the person of color that is being featured. Sadly, in most cases this is a one-way street with only the firm that benefits, and not the person of color.

The problem with these campaigns is that the audience viewing them unconsciously believes that the company sponsoring the panel, workshop, event, etc is providing tangible benefits to the minority issue at hand, or at least to the panelist. They don’t consider the trade that is occurring in actuality.

The Ultimate Trade

Here is the trade between a firm and un-compensated token speaking on their behalf. (Note, if the person speaking on behalf of the company is paid, or in a high-level position at the company that they merited achieving – then they are not a token):

Firm – The firm receives the benefit of engaging a hard-to-reach audience that it knows is growing in importance, at a very low cost. This is a savings in advertising budget, which adds money to their P&L. Budget savings on brand awareness to key audiences are certainly a tangible benefit.

Token – The token featured in the brand’s diversity effort does receive the marketing piece to show for their contribution to the brand’s diversity effort. This counts, right? Marketing collaterals such as mentions in a social media post related to the diversity effort are nice for the resume, but are one of many intangibles that brands will always dangle in front of people who do not understand the real benefit that their likeness and representation provides.

Winner of the Trade? – Ill take the dollars and choose the firm. How about you?

The VIP Token – Financial Services Industry

hispanic marketing tokenismThere are some industries that are more blatant about their Hispanic marketing tokenism efforts than others. For example, the financial services industry is often the most vocal in promotions during Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM). Why? Well, this is largely because Hispanics over-index in being unbanked and are now catching up to the financial services trends of the general market. This spells out opportunity for financial services brands that play in this space such as banks, insurance companies, cash services, and more. Check who’s hosting your local HHM event and I can almost guarantee you there will be a financial services firm present and smiling.

The opportunity for financial services companies to engage Hispanics prior to their peak spending and earning years has been discussed for the past few years. In fact, just last month MediaPost featured an article specifying how great the opportunity is to target Latino consumers.

Is Running a Campaign During HHM Wrong?

Absolutely not. I have seen and attended many authentic events, aimed to celebrate Hispanic cultures that provided a real impact. Unfortunately for brands, consumers and employees can easily tell when a brand has created a campaign to simply ‘check the box’. As a brand, just know what your true motives are as a company is my friendly guidance.

What Brands Should do to Celebrate Minority Cultures

The main thing that brands should be thinking about is how to increase their presence in matters that actually make a difference. Think conscious capitalism here, or the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. Increasing diversity spend is a good start, if that is truly the impact your company believes in. Diversity hires is another. Too many employers these days are slapping a logo, and their acronym of an employee resource group (ERG), on all diversity campaigns to show they care.

If you want to support people of color, why not actually spend some money and time with them? There is a real opportunity to listen to what they are about, their dreams, and more.

As a company, what you should do is the following:

  1. Celebrate your actual employees. And by celebrating them I don’t just mean having a party with some of their national dishes. I mean highlight how these people of color have risen up the ranks and the teams that they are leading today. Or provide a path to leadership for people of color and bring awareness to it. This will go much further in people’s minds then a fun meal with some festive hats.
  2. Pay to Play. Now if you’re going to bring in outside talent to energize your diversity workforce, either pay them for their time, i.e. Nely Galán, who is compensated (as well she should be!) for her endorsements of Coca-Cola or have a very valid reason why you are choosing this talent for your campaign. This one hits close to home for me; many colleagues of mine in my industry, at my own company, and even myself personally have been asked to speak, be featured on websites, branding, and more for companies with which we have no business relationship. These commitments are always expected to be without compensation to the person whose likeness is being used. The only tangible benefits are for the brand to be able to falsely show that they support the multicultural audience. And as Kim Ho stated, recruiting minorities to support an organization that doesn’t value them is “…the ultimate in tokenizing.”
    All the company is doing is making themselves appear inclusive and using our likeness to support this claim. Tell them that you won’t be their token.
  1. Do something that makes a difference. If a brand in the financial services industry wants to make a difference, they should consider product development or pushing for legislation that would address the unbanked situation confronting Latinos in the U.S. One of my favorite examples of a company making a difference is the #PonLeAcento campaign from Major League Baseball (MLB). The MLB understood that their Latino players have names that are slightly more complex than the names that the general baseball fan is used to. Instead of hiding this, the brand decided to celebrate their league of nearly 30% Latinos by allowing them to add the proper accents from their language on their jerseys, which had never occurred previously. This campaign, now in its 3rd year, is a tangible moment that you can see making a difference, standing up to the empowered anti-minority sentiment that has become more and more vocal with each presidential tweet. For Latinos, inside and outside of baseball to take pride in their name, to boldly display their accented names on their backs, is something that a brand should be proud of.

There are many more! Read this great article from Marisol Moreno on how to properly celebrate HHM before you buy a bongo drum to give to the mariachi band you want to hire.

It’s mostly Tokenizing Brands that Care about Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM)

It’s true. According to Nielsen, 70% of Hispanics don’t celebrate HHM or their countries national independence day.

Brands wait until September 15th to unleash their token budgets (there’s that word again!) as if Latinos have been waiting all year for these firms to finally pay them attention. Why not spend on Hispanic consumers at the rate of their presence in the U.S. (18%), rather than the annual big release?

Now, full disclosure, I live this stuff. My company is in the multicultural advertising space and we hear about the ‘importance of HHM’ each year. Thankfully, I can say that my team has never activated an HHM campaign. We only do full year campaigns, sorry. We did however have our sister company at OYE software look at 2015 Hispanic Heritage Month campaigns for trends. The key insight that we pulled is that the primary source of social media users that talk about brand activations for HHM on social media are the brands themselves. Through the data, we confirm that it’s false to say that companies are getting their Latino employees or the Latino consumer market to talk about their HHM campaigns.

As the inspired writers from Latino Rebels articulate, Latinos have a very good BS meter and they have a message for brands regarding Hispanic Heritage Month, Dear agencies and brands, we are asking you to please step away from all this. Latino consumers are smarter than you think. Stop, please stop.”

The Joy of Tokenism

Pepsi had a major folly in 2017 regarding a tone-deaf advertisement featuring Kylie Jenner during the time of heightened awareness for BlackLivesMatter. Following Pepsi’s tokenism moment, Claire Cooper’s article featuring fictitious dialogues between major brand teams touched on many valid subjects in the diverse world of tokenism. Each of these brands mentioned (Apple, Cheerios, Mr. Clean, etc) have had their own tokenism moments, and Cooper hilariously shows what that conversation in the advertising conference room must have consisted of, including quotes such as, “…audiences are getting smarter. They’re picking up on our disingenuous attempts to act like we give two sh**s about minorities.”

The article concludes with Pepsi’s satirical apology to its fellow brands for which it has ruined tokenism, “We are deeply sorry to our fellow consumer brands for whom the slam-dunk marketing approach of racial tokenism has now been jeopardized…Words cannot express our disappointment at this time.”

There are steps being taken in marketing and advertising to understand more about multicultural consumers and empower them, but there is much more to be done. Until then, brand advertiser, I ask of you to refrain from making anyone your token.

Will Tokenism end in 2019?

The night grows long, and as I leave that Midwestern arcade bar with a few coins left, I cross the chilly street and wonder if we will soon see the end of tokenism. I recall that just this month I went to both an HHM event hosted by an unpaid panel, and a financial services awards event for Hispanic leaders. Upon congratulating one of the winners, she replied to me, “A contract would have been better.”

No, I don’t think we’re slowing down. Not yet. Not when we continue to let brands slap our faces on their marketing materials without thinking about the actual trade occurring in this case. Or when we honor brands that only celebrate our culture for one 30-day period.

Realizing this sad fact, I arrive home and find a copper-colored tin can in my closet. Here is where I store items that I know technically have value, but that I would rather not keep on my person. I toss my leftover tokens in the jar. I know that it will be a long time until I see these coins again. And somehow, I know that one day, when my walk is slow, and my beard is gray, I will pull out a token and think, “I remember those days.”



All Hispanic Bros and Sis’s: http://www.latinorebels.com/2018/09/22/to-my-hispanic-brothers-and-sisters/

This Hispanic Heritage Month, Lets Leverage the Right to Vote: http://www.latinorebels.com/2018/09/18/hhmopinion/

End Hispandering: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marisel-moreno/endhispandering-taking-ba_b_8147514.html

The History of Hispandering: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/10/so-what-is-hispandering/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c24a9005473a

How to Celebrate Hispandering Heritage Month: http://www.latinorebels.com/2015/09/17/how-to-celebrate-hispandering-heritage-month/

Hispandering Month Begins with Coca Cola’s Heritage Tattoo Cans: http://www.latinorebels.com/2015/09/05/hispandering-heritage-month-begins-with-coca-colas-ridiculous-heritage-tattoo-cans/

Univision – Peak Spending Years: https://corporate.univision.com/blog/finance/2017/07/25/us-hispanics-and-finance/

Simmons – Unbanked, no Credit Cards or Debt: https://www.simmonsresearch.com/2017/10/10/la-oportunidad-hispanics-personal-finance/

Big Brands Blast Pepsi for Abusing Sacred Tradition: https://medium.com/@claire___cooper/big-brands-blast-pepsi-for-abusing-sacred-tradition-of-tokenism-93e42d911eaf

8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits: https://medium.com/the-nonprofit-revolution/8-ways-people-of-color-are-tokenized-in-nonprofits-32138d0860c1

Major League Baseball Wins CLIO: https://clios.com/sports/winner/15346

Ponle Acento Campaign is a Step in the Right Direction: https://www.fangraphs.com/tht/mlbs-ponle-acento-campaign-is-a-step-in-the-right-direction/

How Latinos Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month: https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2013/how-latinos-celebrate-hispanic-heritage-month-and-beyond.html