What do customers expect from brands on MLK Day?

300+ consumers across the US share their current attitudes around the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how brands can avoid exploiting cultural holidays to sell products and services.

by Oretia Peart, Associate Director, and Keyona Osborne, Head of DEI ThinkTank, C Space

What do cultural celebrations and observances mean to your customers? To your brand or organization? If your answers aren’t related, your marketing campaigns aren’t accomplishing their full potential.  

There are many cultural celebrations and observances in the US each year, from one-day occurrences to month-long observances. They’re wide-ranging, too, with respect to recognizing ethnicities and heritages (e.g.,  Black History Month, AAPI Heritage Month and Lunar New Year ); honoring religions (e.g., Ramadan, Passover, Easter and  Eid al-Adha); raising awareness (e.g., Disability Pride Month, Women’s History Month,  LGBTQIA+ Pride Month and  Mental Health Awareness Month); and observing past and present heroes (e.g., MLK Day  and Veterans Day).

In this series of articles, each focused on a different cultural celebration in the US, we’ll unpack common marketing mistakes brands and organizations make, share advice on how to avoid them, and signpost resources to help you maximize profit and build relationships with your consumers through thoughtful campaigns around cultural moments.

First, we explore Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day, one of eight federal holidays observed in all 50 states.


Are marketing messages resonating with consumers?

We spoke to 300+ consumers across the US around MLK Day 2023 to understand their feelings and attitudes towards MLK Day, how it’s celebrated and how they are marketed to. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on leaders to stand for unity and against racism and segregation. Although Dr. King was often jailed, beaten and eventually assassinated for this seemingly radical viewpoint, today, many celebrate his efforts and seek to follow in his footsteps.  

In observance of the MLK holiday, many organizations call for a day of service, asking US residents to spend the day volunteering with non-profit organizations who are also working toward racial unity. Our DEI ThinkTank wondered whether this and other marketing messages resonated with US consumers. It turns out, the messages do not resonate.  

In the days leading up to, and after, MLK Day, consumers prefer to hear about brand actions: tangible steps taken by the business similar to what Dr. King stood for. So, next MLK Day, and for future celebrations of our heroes, consider using your marketing campaigns to share the work you are doing that aligns with the goals and dreams of the heroes being celebrated. Don’t minimize the achievements of the hero by using images and quotes without examples of actions taken by your brand. 

What do cultural celebrations and observances mean to your customers? To your brand? If your answers aren’t related, your marketing campaigns aren’t accomplishing their full potential.  

Be the spark that ignites the flame.

Six in every 10 consumers we spoke to could not identify (without seeing a list first) a single brand that stood for the same things Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. Upon seeing a list of popular brands, roughly one in three consumers selected Nike as a brand synonymous with Dr. King’s values & beliefs, and one in five chose Adidas, and Target.  

Now is the time for your brand to be named.  

To rank as best-in-class, a brand’s celebration of MLK Day must be sincere, relatable and enduring. MLK Day marketing messages around unity, ending racism and including Dr. King’s quotes drive consumers’ interest in a brand. Meanwhile protest imagery and biblical quotes are less impactful.  

Indeed, MLK-related content should accentuate the positives rather than the negatives: focus on MLK’s passion for unity and equality in lieu of the division and prejudice of his time. In fact, in the case of the NBA’s 2021 ‘MLK Day: We Must Learn‘ advertisement, consumers, regardless of ethnicity, felt that the following elements resonated:  

1. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and legacy
2. The call for unity, racial integration and cooperation and equality

For brands like the NBA, whose product may not clearly relate to the lifestyle or viewpoint of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., don’t force it.  


Covering the old footages of Dr. MLK with the basketball images/videos isn’t appealing. What would make it more appealing is if you had a side-by-side comparison of how the basketball organizations are actively meeting and supporting nonprofits fighting against racism instead of simply showing the diversity in team members.

It’s a thin line between good intentions and tokenism.

Consumers are generally skeptical of brands’ attempt to exploit cultural holidays to sell products/services.


“I don’t know. Something about organizations pandering one day a year because everyone else does doesn’t sit right with me.

I t’s hard because I equate big name brands with someone who is out of touch with reality. Their goal is to make money, not racial harmony. I would think a brand that would donate the majority of their profits to organizations fighting racial inequality [is a brand that stands for the same things that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for].

Sincerity and an ongoing commitment are important levers at a brand’s disposal. In fact, 76% of American consumers are more likely to support brands that are authentic in their advertising.* It’s important to carefully assess your own brand fit for meaningful and sustainable connections you can build into the story, connect the dots for consumers and establish authenticity. C Space’s DEI ThinkTank is available  to partner with you on this.

A call to action for all businesses.

Even if your organization is not doing work that aligns with Dr. King’s dream, consider one small change: providing the day off to your employees. Our research shows five in 10 employees have MLK Day as a paid holiday. Consider the message being sent to the 50% of employees who do not have the day off, or have to choose between a day of rest and a day of pay. There is a strong need for more inclusive workplace cultures for America’s diversifying workforce. 

Brands that truly value diversity actively engage in inclusive workplace practices. The benefits of those practices are perpetual: increased creativity, employee morale and feelings of belonging; and externally, it attracts talent, and signals to consumers a brand’s authentic appreciation for inclusion. In fact, Deloitte found that 80% of consumers agree inclusion is important when choosing an employer, and DEI KPIs positively correlate with brand growth among consumers.**

Carefully assess your own brand fit for meaningful and sustainable connections to build into the story, connect the dots for consumers and establish authenticity.

It’s time to transform your business.

We have helped some of the world’s most well-known B2B and B2C brands with their DEI initiatives. Quite frankly, with the growing diversity of the U.S. population,  all initiatives should be considered DEI initiatives. Our DEI ThinkTank helps you bring a DEI lens to every research project so that your insights are future-proof. 

Ready to make your marketing more inclusive?

DEI is not one-size-fits-all – that’s why we’ve designed a solution to start with you and your team and build from there. Find out how C Space’s DEI ThinkTank can transform you business.

About C Space’s DEI ThinkTank.

We’re a cross-functional team bringing together real-time learning from clients, third-party experts and our proprietary research. Our goal is to accelerate our collective learning at C Space to transform our business, mobilize our clients and change the industry.  Read more about the work we do here.

Thank you for reading the first in a series of articles on inclusive marketing. Click here to read the next article:  How to Avoid Marketing Mistakes During Black History Month.

Watch this space for successive chapters: deep dives into cultural celebrations and observances in the US and around the world and practical advice on how brands can participate in inclusive and authentic ways.