In case you were offline this weekend, a really big event happened:

Béyoncé dropped her latest single, "Formation," on Tidal and broke the internet. Many people have unpacked its messages about heritage, racism, and self-love. But there was a moment in her song that gave a mainstream American company a huge opportunity to own the day on social media, if only for a day.

And Red Lobster fumbled.

"Formation" contains lyrics that are decidedly NSFW (not safe for work, though I suppose that depends on what sort of office you work in), so I'll just link to the video here. It's a powerful #BlackLivesMatter moment. And in the midst, there's a line about going to Red Lobster after having sex.

Fans and followers--many from the black community--flew to Twitter, waiting for some reaction from Red Lobster.

And waited.

And waited.

Hours later, a relatively tame response:

Now, one might understand the reluctance of a corporate-owned chain to get too racy in social media. But the fact that the company waited hours to respond at all--when people were calling on the company almost seconds after the song dropped--shows a distinct lack of its understanding its audience.

This is what diversity is about, make no mistake.

Let's put aside arguments of the morality of diversity, because that's not what this is about--that's an argument for another time and place. Let's just look at the wallet.

A Nielsen study late last year showed that African American consumers have become increasingly important to the American economy. A few details from the full report:

  • Income growth rates among blacks outpaced that of non-Hispanic whites at every household income level greater than $60,000.
  • Interested in Millennials? The average age of African Americans is 31.4 years, compared with 39 years for non-Hispanic whites.
  • Education rates have increased faster for blacks in America than other demographic groups.
  • Media consumption among blacks is greater than that of all other demographic groups, whether you're talking about TV, radio, desktop computers, or the mobile Web.
  • The wealthier the black family, the more media they consume.

In other words: This is a demographic that's listening to your marketing messages. If you are not paying attention and not talking to them, you are losing money. Period.

I turned to Nina Perez, a well-known author, digital strategist, and founder of Project Fandom, for her thoughts, and she hit it on the head.

"I find it a little absurd that a brand as big as Red Lobster didn't have someone on social media to monitor conversations around their brand, but it was a Saturday during Super Bowl weekend, so we can give them a pass for that. Maybe," Perez told me in an email.

"But when they finally responded, it was so tone deaf," she continued. "Brands trying to capitalize on trends and hashtags used by people of color is nothing new. However, it's frustrating that they will do this to get our dollars, but fail to have our voices behind the scenes and included in branding and marketing conversations.

Then Perez dropped the truth bomb:

"And that's bizarre since most brands strive for authenticity, but sound completely inauthentic in situations like this weekend's Lobstergate."

I will forgive Perez the "Lobstergate" reference to echo her point: Don't we throw the word authenticity around all the time? Isn't this what brands are told to strive for all the time?

How can you be authentic if you simply don't have people on staff who mirror the people you're trying to reach?

Much has been made of the now-infamous 3 percent figure, from a 2008 study that indicated just 3 percent of award-winning creative directors at U.S. agencies were women. A study from the Marcus Graham Project in 2014 revealed that less than 6 percent of the industry consisted of African Americans.

Here, Brittany King puts it better than I could, in her column on Blavity:

"I can't say that there are no black people on Red Lobster's social media team, but I can draw from my own experiences of being the only black face working on a large brand. The less-than-stellar response speaks to a bigger problem within the advertising industry--a lack of representation.

It's not just important that people in ads are diverse but also that the creatives behind the ads are diverse. When they're not, you can tell."

We've had a lot of lip service to the ideas of authenticity on social media. It's just not possible to be authentic when your staff doesn't understand their audience.

Is Red Lobster going to go out of business because of this incident?

Of course not. No one would even suggest it should. However, let's all learn from this, and realize that if long-term viability as a business depends on knowing your audience and being authentic, it serves the wallet as much as anything else to ensure your work force is diverse.

Published on: Feb 8, 2016