It is exciting to see so many brands jumping into the ring to celebrate Black History Month this year. It signifies that more companies are embracing diversity, inclusion, and belonging, not only internally, when it comes to human resources and company culture, but also in their marketing.

As consumers grow increasingly more diverse, you don't want to miss out on what can be a huge opportunity for business and belonging. Marketing to diverse customer groups, especially if you are new to it, requires authenticity, cultural intelligence, and a deep degree of customer intimacy. You can't expect to approach them the same way you do mass audiences and get the same results.

Even when you think you're already celebrating diverse audiences within your marketing, it can be challenging to get it right. Earlier this month, Barnes & Noble canceled its Black History Month campaign that featured "reimagined" book covers with black characters for classic literary works, such as Moby Dick, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland. The campaign missed the mark, and received much backlash, before it even launched because it missed the point of Black History Month. It promoted white authors, rather than taking the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of black ones.

As you continue to make plans to celebrate diverse communities through Black History Month, Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women's History Month, and others, it is important to remember certain core principles that will help get your marketing approach right.

Don't limit your celebrations and connections to one month a year.

It's like showing up to celebrate a friend on her birthday, and then ghosting her for the rest of the year. Not cool. It may also be viewed as exploitative. For example, this has been a big complaint coming from the LGBTQ community, which has turned away from 
companies that participate in Pride celebrations when they seem to be in it purely for the purpose of corporate gain, rather than actual support for the community.

It's important to be present, involved, and truly supportive of issues and causes that impact the community all year long. Deepening your degree of empathy for the community's plight will go a long way.

Then, when it's time to turn things up a notch during their official celebrations, you'll fit right in -- and have a stronger sense of what types of campaigns will make the biggest impact.

Showcase products and services from diverse communities.

This was one of the big missteps of Barnes & Noble. There are plenty of black authors they could have spotlighted, both classic and contemporary, but they didn't include any. They 
missed the opportunity to help them shine. 

In general, it is a good idea to have a diverse supplier network, so you can highlight the goods and services of people from many different backgrounds. Make their work--not your own--the hero of your campaigns. And when supporting diversity and inclusion, be sure you actually include the people in the community you are celebrating.

Bring in diverse team members to help shape campaigns.

Target has been praised this year for its Black History Month campaigns throughout their stores. One of the reasons its program has been so well-received is because they worked with their internal employee resource group for African-Americans. These team members provided valuable input in helping the company select products to highlight, and events to host.

If your team isn't representative of the audience you want to celebrate, note that as an area of opportunity and priority for your hiring efforts in the future. Then seek out counsel from third parties such as agencies or consultants who can help fill in any gaps in your cultural intelligence regarding this specific customer group.

Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are important elements to prioritize in your marketing, especially as the makeup of your customers is changing. These consumers with diverse needs, many of whom have been traditionally ignored or underserved, need you to demonstrate consistently with your marketing that they belong with you.

But to earn their attention, adoration, and loyalty, you've got to invest in these communities with your time, resources, and commitment -- over the long haul.

Published on: Feb 14, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.