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Performative Marketing with Briar Harvey

Performative marketing often starts with your company culture. It’s something that starts on the inside.

Today I’m speaking with Briar Harvey, a storyteller and systems witch, about the corrosive effects of performative marketing on your team, how to handle when you get called out in the online space, and the steps to take to do better if that happens.

Ready? Let’s get started.

In this episode:

  • Examples of performative marketing in current culture
  • How performative marketing damages your brand, your clients, and your team
  • How to handle situations when you have caused harm

Listen to the podcast here:

Behind The Scenes Of Performative Marketing with Briar Harvey

All right, I’m excited to have you here today. Welcome. I really am very interested in this topic of performative marketing. I did an episode on it a few weeks ago with Alison Tedford that I highly recommend you listen to, where we spoke about performative marketing and how to avoid the pitfalls of that and how to test the waters to determine if you are falling into the trap of performative marketing or not. 

Then I reached out to you and then we talked about what performative marketing looks like from behind the scenes. From the team side. Obviously, that was something I’m super interested in being someone who works in hiring and has hired a lot of teams. 

So really excited to dive into this topic today. But before we get into all of that, tell us who you are and what you do on the internet.

Hello, y’all. I am Briar Harvey. I am a storyteller and a systems witch. I have several podcasts. One of them is called Ask Briar, the other is called Latchkey Movies. Because I could not stop at just talking about business, I have to talk about kids movies, too, that’s vitally important to absolutely nothing that I do. It’s one of my favorite things. 

For work, I am a project manager for neurodivergent entrepreneurs. People come to me with really big ideas that they can see the end of but without the clear steps to get there. So I map out all the steps and then sometimes I’m bossy enough to tell you how to do them.

I love that you work specifically with people who are neurodivergent. Everybody’s different in that sense of like, you can see the end result, but you can’t see the steps in between. Knowing the steps in between is very important. So bringing someone in who can help you do that and understand how it is that you work is so valuable.

I am neurodivergent. My husband is neurodivergent. All three of my children are neurodivergent. I have spent my entire life learning strategies to figure out how to make things work with my brain. And that is vitally important to me to share it with people because project management software does not work for neurodivergent people in a lot of cases.

I know this is very off topic. But I’ve literally just watched a Ted Talk earlier today about somebody who does something really similar, but I think more specifically dialed in on time management. She said traditional planners don’t work for people who are neurodivergent. And I was like, Oh my god, they don’t.

That’s so true. I love that. Off topic. We’ll come back to that later time.

When we talk about performative marketing, to lay the foundation, I highly recommend you listen to Alison’s episode.

Alison is one of my business besties. She’s so amazing.

Performative marketing, just to put it out there for anybody who hasn’t listened to the earlier episode, is about using trends, specifically around social issues like racism and misogyny, female empowerment, etc, to promote your brand without doing anything behind the scenes to actually further those causes. 

Performative marketing...is about using trends, specifically around social issues like racism and misogyny, female empowerment, etc, to promote your brand without doing anything behind the scenes to actually further those causes. Click To Tweet

When we talk about what that looks like, on the front end, it’s things like the black squares on Instagram for the racial violence protests in the summer of 2020. The list could go on, but that’s a good example of performative marketing. 

I have a whole episode specifically on feminist performative marketing, where companies will market to female empowerment and then literally do active harm to women by telling them that they can be empowered as long as they’re wearing the right shade of lipstick and other stupid things beauty companies tell women. 

When we’re thinking in terms of performative marketing behind the scenes of the team, how does that erode the team morale?

The biggest point that I like to hit here is that you can honestly get a good feel for this. And this has come up a lot recently in the online space of people who are paying four dollars to outsource their VA services to the Philippines. 

I have an episode about that, too. 

There you go. Because these people believe that their employees are not as valuable. Ultimately, there is a clear distinction behind how we treat people on the back end, with time and compensation and what we require of them as freelancers and independent contractors. It’s a very wide range of activity.

I do project management. I hang out with all the copywriters and all of the branding people, right? I know all of these people and they all tell me stories. So I have all the tea on all of these people and how much money they actually invest to make these multimillion dollar launches happen and what that looks like in a harmful way on the back end.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, literally the first three names that popped into my head of people in the online space who will give advice inside of their group programs and their masterminds about how to hire a VA for $3 or $5 an hour from a foreign country and why you should do that to keep your profit margins high.

And how it’s justifiable because of cost of living and all sorts of bullshit. If you’re not willing to pay someone who is regionally local to you or if you are not willing to pay another human being the minimum basic requirement of what your standard of living is, then you shouldn’t be outsourcing.

If you are not willing to pay another human being the minimum basic requirement of what your standard of living is, then you shouldn't be outsourcing. Click To Tweet

Yes, if you can’t afford the basic wage wherever you live, because by and large, this is the thing that happens in in wealthy white countries and it is outsourced to poor brown countries, every fucking time. So if you’re the kind of person who is like, Oh, well, they’ll take $4 an hour, well, no shit. A starving person will take almost anything. That doesn’t mean you should pay them that much, right? 

A person in a poor country who needs the work, who wants to do the work, who will settle for that price doesn’t mean that you should pay them that price. And also, you’re paying for the value of the work, not where the person lives. If I move from my moderately expensive city, to the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, where I could get a house for a quarter of the price that I pay for my apartment, that does not mean that my rates are going to change because now I live somewhere cheaper. It just means I’m gonna have more profit. Good for me.

Yeah, good for you. And that’s important. Good for you that you found a way to increase your profit margin without causing harm to other people.

Exactly. I changed what I was doing to make more money rather than fucking over someone else to make more money, which is where we’re getting to. 

That behind the scenes piece is so important because if you are willing to compromise here, where else are you willing to compromise? And that certainly comes off in the front end of your business because it’s almost like if you’re willing to do anything on the back end, to make as much money as possible, you’re probably not that worried about doing whatever it is you can on the front end to make as much money as possible, even if that is performatively marketing in order to get people’s money, whether you are committed to actually helping the people in the group you are now exploiting or not.

The way that it is performative on the back end has gotten very “mean girls”, especially in female dominated industries, like coaching and spirituality. Those are the waters that I tend to play in and these women get really vicious. And they’re doing it in arguably public spaces. 

If you are familiar with the luggage company Away, they had a huge scandal last year because the CEO was literally berating people in the company Slack. 

I own one of their suitcases. Why? Why do they all have to disappoint me?

There are degrees, right? The company itself has gone on and made changes. She is, I believe, no longer actively on the board. There are indeed degrees, but we really, really have to determine where our personal priorities are, I think, and what’s important to us and when we’re willing to say, No, I’m not okay with this.

So when people are thinking about their company culture in order to essentially build a business from the ground up, from the inside out, that is not intentionally causing harm, what are some things that you would suggest that they keep top of mind when they’re making those decisions in their business?

Inclusion isn’t a passive thing. It’s a very active practice. If you are doing it, you’re doing it intentionally and meaningfully. The way that looks is figuring out the ways in which people aren’t included and then figuring out ways to bring them in. 

I work with neurodiverse people. I help companies do workshops if they need to help employees who are struggling with project management. We can host a big workshop where people can generally learn about project management tips and tools. It doesn’t have to be pointed out that this is a thing that you are failing at. Rather, it is a calling. Like this is a thing that we could all learn more of. The same is true when we are talking about racial diversity, whether we’re talking about gay and lesbian inclusion, trans inclusion. Those things matter deeply in the ways in which we are calling people in.

Inclusion isn't a passive thing. It's a very active practice. If you are doing it, you're doing it intentionally and meaningfully. Click To Tweet

If your entire team looks exactly like you, you need to sit down and figure out why that is and figure out how you can diversify if these issues are important to you. Because that’s something that’s very important in terms of being able to have the different experiences on your team to bring those issues up in ways that may be a blind spot for you. 

No one’s expecting you to anticipate every possible issue or problem that might come up. You’re not psychic. You can’t know everything. The point of creating diversity and inclusivity inside of your business in all aspects, but especially starting with your team, is so that you can have those different perspectives. 

So if you put a problematic marketing campaign together, you have somebody on the team tell you that you’re putting a problematic marketing campaign together. And you fostered a sense of culture where someone feels they’re safe enough to stand up and say something about it. Somebody can point this out.

This one is old enough now that I think there will probably be no harm naming names here. But I often wonder, what would have happened if Danielle LaPorte had had more people of color when she decided to do her Lighter campaign?

For anybody who has not heard of that, tell us what that is. That is a perfect example.

Danielle LaPorte is a spiritual guru and I like her work. She’s got some indigenous background, so she shouldn’t be totally insensitive to these kinds of issues. The campaign was called Lighter. The idea was that you were lifting your spiritual load but the main logo was just so cringe-worthy, it still makes me cringe. The main logo was this Black man on a moon and they had literally changed his skin color to make him lighter.

I can’t imagine that if there had been more people of color around her in her team and available to say, hold on a minute, I’m not sure people are going to take this the way that you think that they are going to take it. The concept was good. The branding was solid. It was honestly mostly this image and when she was called on it, she doubled-down.

That’s always the problem.

Always the problem. She doubled-down. She made it worse. The one thing that she did that I really, really hate is she deleted posts. There were all of these Black women doing all of this incredible education about why this was a problem and then it was just gone.

Yeah, that’s the thing. Okay, so this is perfect. Perfect because this is the kind of thing that happens. 

Let’s say that your team is not very diverse right now. That is a problem but you can remedy this situation. It doesn’t have to stay that way. But let’s say that that happens to you. You put that shit out on the internet. You don’t realize that there’s anything wrong with it until someone is like, hold on. What the fuck are you thinking?

You will absolutely, as a business owner, as a human, have a moment where you feel horrible. You’ll probably be sick to your stomach. You’ll probably just feel awful. There will be a moment that comes into your conscious awareness. And whatever causes that, whether you feel embarrassed because someone’s calling you out, whether you feel like whatever, it will feel very uncomfortable. I know because it has happened to me in different aspects that will feel very uncomfortable. I want to encourage you, anyone who this might have happened to…

Growth is a process. We are all learning. And we can’t know what we don’t know, until we know it.

Yes, you’re going to want to be open to learning from those mistakes rather than getting defensive. Then, all you’re doing is modeling to your team, to your fans, to your followers, to your clients to whomever, all you’re doing is modeling that you don’t take opportunities for learning and growth when they are presented to you. 

If someone is giving you feedback that you posted something that is racist or unintentionally harmful, or insensitive, or whatever the feedback is, and you are more concerned with how that feedback is being delivered than the feedback itself, you’re missing the fucking point. You’re modeling to everybody who’s watching both from the inside of your business and from the outside of your business. You’re more concerned with how the feedback is delivered than the actual content itself and that is corrosive.

If someone is giving you feedback that you posted something that is racist or unintentionally harmful...and you are more concerned with how that feedback is being delivered than the feedback itself, you're missing the fucking point. Click To Tweet

And there’s the flip side of this coin, which is death by 1,000 papercuts. As of the day we recorded this, it is the day after Christy Teigen has left the building and has left Twitter.

Chrissy Teigen has left Twitter?

She left Twitter. She has deleted her Twitter account. It’s rough because Chrissy has said some questionable things over the years. We don’t have to catalog them but we also have seen some very personal stuff from her. 

After the death of her child and what that looks like. As someone who has had a stillbirth, that resonates very deeply with me. I lost my mind for a while. So watching Chrissy be able to tell that story has been profoundly meaningful to me. And every day, there was someone in her inbox talking about how she’s a liar or what she’s done wrong today. So while we’re delivering feedback, it is very important to remember that there is a human being on the other side of that feedback.

Yeah, absolutely. The episode that I have on feedback is about that you have the power to decide how you handle feedback. You get to decide what you take and use. You get to decide what you take and throw away so people who are just being dicks to be dicks, you can throw those people away. But people who are trying to educate you and help you, people who are expending emotional labor to try and help you be better and do better, those are the people you want to focus on in situations like this because those are the people who can help you pay attention to ways in which you were being performative or cringy or racist so that you can avoid that in the future. 

Hopefully if you’re a person who’s listening to this podcast, you are someone who wants to avoid doing shit like that in the future that causes people harm but you have to be open to that feedback because people are watching. People are absorbing how you’re reacting to stuff like that. 

So if that happens to you, sit with it. You don’t have to react immediately. You don’t have to get out your Twitter thumbs and go right to town and respond to people. You can take an hour or a couple of hours to think about it. To sit with it before you say something. Make sure that you’re not centering your feelings in that discussion especially if you’re causing somebody harm.

I think that it is important to evaluate your personal boundaries around what your willingness to be called out for is. Social media is hard and it is toxic and potentially damaging even when it’s done well. It is toxic and potentially damaging so being able to step back and say ‘no, this is just not for me at this time’ is important.

Social media is hard and it is toxic and potentially damaging even when it's done well. Click To Tweet

In terms of not engaging or in terms of not posting at all?

In terms of not engaging. It’s really important to be able to internalize a lesson and not have to performatively explain what you’re learning while you’re learning it. An apology is sometimes necessary and make the apology and then walk away. Don’t apologize and then explain your apology or explain your learning process behind the apology because that is likely to get you into even more trouble. Just as Terry Crews.

Don’t do one of those YouTuber apologies where you cry. I think Alison talked about that on our episode where she explained how to acknowledge that you fucked up. I would say in many cases, you do want to at least acknowledge that you have heard people. You don’t want to disappear into the ether and never post on Instagram again or post again and pretend like nothing happened. You do want to acknowledge that.

Because neither one of those things serve you in any way. You should look up the four parts or five parts of an apology. Craft an apology and then keep your damn mouth shut for a week. How hard is it to say, this is what I’ve said and now I’m not saying any more about this.

Yeah and for God’s sakes, please run your apology by somebody else.

This is what the text group or group chat is for. Remember your biz besties.

Find those people who will read your shit before you post it.

I have a list. I start with my business bestie and best friend and then I move out. I get three or four opinions sometimes. Is this right? Should I say it this way? This is what they’re there for.

You want people reading this and giving you opinions who are more woke than you. Don’t ask people on your level if you’ve made this gaffe. If you’ve made this mistake, please go to people who are knowledgeable, not people who are going to tell you what you want to hear. 

I know that every human being on this planet, especially women-identifying people, know who to go to for different kinds of advice. You know who to go to if you just want someone who’s gonna agree with you. You know who to go to for somebody who’s going to tell you like it is. So go to the person who’s going to tell you like it is.

You know the concept that you are the cumulative of the five people you spend time with, which is mostly bullshit, but you are the sum total of the people you choose to surround yourself with, in general. So if you aren’t sure where you’re at, you should be upleveling your acquaintances.

If your friends and your acquaintances aren’t pushing you to be better, you need some new ones.

That’s true, especially in entrepreneurship because a lot of us come from families or social backgrounds where we are not encouraged to do things differently. To not get a nine-to-five job. 

“When are you getting a real job?” my mother-in-law asked me for many years before she was forced into early retirement and had to start consulting. Now she makes more money than she ever did in her nine-to-five and looks at me and goes, Oh, I get it now.

Those are the people who surround you. You have to uplevel. You have to find groups, friends, people who will tell you the truth. People who will be honest with you and people who will lift you up at the same time.

Your friends should be challenging you to be better always.

Or what are they for?

Exactly. 

I want to ask this question. When we have these instances that we’ve been talking about where you didn’t run that shit past the right person and you put it out into the world and you fucked up, and now you’re in this position where you’re apologizing, how do you address that internally with team members who may have been harmed? How do you then address the fallout from those situations internally with your team in order to be better?

You need somebody to come in, who can say this is specifically the institutional way in which this harm was allowed to happen. Click To Tweet

That’s a really great question and it’s one that I’m seeing play out over and over again in real time as an utter failure.

When an event like this happens, it is at this point in time that I think that you have to hire somebody to come in and consult on specific ways to fix the problems. You need somebody to come in, who can say this is specifically the institutional way in which this harm was allowed to happen. 

You’re sitting there licking your wounds over the fact that you were called out on the internet and potentially canceled and that’s a different problem entirely. But the reality is if you want to fix it, you must do the work internally. 

I don’t think saying you’re going to change, changes anything, if you don’t actually fundamentally make those changes on the back end. That is hiring a DEI that is implementing procedures with your employees where they feel free to actually complain or bring things up. 

I think that it is Ray Dalio who created this realtime employee feedback model where employees are constantly rating and ranking everyone else all at the same time. It’s all open. It’s expected that you give feedback because that’s how we grow. 

On an employee level, if your employees are afraid to speak to you because you’re going to yell at them or if your employees are always afraid that they’re going to be fired or replaced or if your employees have no job security or benefits or any kind of investiture in your business, how can you possibly expect for them to feel comfortable enough to bring things to you.

There are ways that you can create this comfortable culture even if you do not have employees. We’re not requiring that you wait to get to this point until you have employees. By the time you’re ready to hire an employee as an entrepreneur, you should have been developing this company culture all along.

All along and it’s different with freelancers than it is with employees and that’s fine but whatever your culture is, no one is going to come to you unless you say, I need you to come to me. I need to know what concerns are. This is about leadership and let’s be honest, a lot of entrepreneurs are not necessarily the best CEOs.

That’s very true. Sometimes they just want to be the ideas person and not necessarily the person who’s calling all the shots as it were. That’s why you get to a point where you hire a project manager, you hire an OBM, you hire a C-suite so that those people make those decisions. I find there’s a difference between the president of a company and the CEO of a company. 

Those different people have wildly different jobs. If CEO is your job description, if people management is your description, then you have to be fucking good at it or you’re not doing your job right. If you’re managing people, then they have to be able to bring complaints to you and they have to be able to bring concerns.

Yeah and you can’t just say if you have a problem come see me, come tell me. You have to do something about whatever it is they’re bringing to you. You also have to not use that against them in the future. 

If someone brings you an issue and six months from now, you use that issue against them to punish them, to throw it back in their face, to throw them under the bus, you have now zeroed out all of your credibility. They will never trust you again and they will probably quit. They’ll probably leave your team very quickly.

You can’t just pay lip service and then only accept positive feedback. That’s not how that shit works. You can’t only take the comments where people say we’re doing a great job and everything’s fine and ignore the comments where we’re falling down. These are moments of uncomfortable growth. Take the negative comments to someone who can help you process that. 

You have to do something about whatever it is they're bringing to you. You also have to not use that against them in the future. Click To Tweet

It is not your employees who are supposed to be processing your feelings about feedback from your employees. Shit rolls uphill in this equation. It should never roll downhill. This is when we look at the systems of business. 

One of the things we really have to explore is how we are recreating systems that do harm rather than trying to create or implement systems that save us from harm. This is very much inculcated in company culture. Shit rolls downhill and that is damaging to an employee who ultimately needs to be able to trust you. That’s what it all comes down to. I have to be able to trust that you are going to treat me well, that we’re gonna be able to have a relationship, so if you want one, you actually have to cultivate that relationship which means not treating me like shit just because something didn’t work right.

There’s a reason in corporate culture why management does performance ratings on the people under them and not the people above them and we want to flip that. You need feedback from the people below you who are direct recipients of how well you do your job. That’s the feedback that you need. 

If you want to get better at whatever the fuck your job is on your team, whether you are the OBM, whether you’re the CEO, whether you’re the project manager, whether you’re the VA implementing newsletters, whatever it is, you need the feedback from whoever sits below you on the team or whoever reports to you on the team, so that you can get better. And none of us are immune to this. Literally, none.

My executive assistant yelled at me last week about my lack of content creation. She can’t do her job if I don’t do mine. Briar needs feedback because we have blind spots. When feedback comes from above, you take it more seriously than when it comes from below. Why don’t we care about the opinions of people who we’re paying? Is it because they’re replaceable? That’s a bad way to look at the people who are supposed to be growing your company.

So the minute you get to a place where your team is a number, your team is a replaceable entity, what’s the point? You have to examine your motives. Why is it that you’re really in business? And that also plays into performative marketing. Is your intent here to help as many people as possible, to actually help people improve? Or whatever it is that you do? Or is your intent just to make as much money as possible? 

I don’t have a problem with making money. I like money, I think money is great. I like to buy stuff. You can do a lot of shit with money. You can go places, you can buy things, you can lobby the federal government, whatever it is you want to do with your money you can do. And I think more people who want to lobby the federal government for good rather than evil, should have more money in their pockets.

Absolutely. Because that’s how the game is played.

That’s how the game is played. Exactly. So really, I think what we’re saying here is that performative marketing is not just about an ad campaign, it really comes from a company culture that starts with you as the CEO. Because if you don’t care about this aspect of your business, if you are marketing off of something that you have no intention of actually supporting with your time or your dollars or your voice, then there are more than likely many other ways in your business in which you are actively doing harm, both to your clients and customers and to your team members. 

That is where you need to pause and reflect and bring someone in who can illuminate all that shit for you and help you work through it if that’s something that you want to do. Hopefully, those people want to do that. And if they don’t, and you’re listening to this, you could just be a person who quits that team. 

Performative marketing is not just about an ad campaign, it really comes from a company culture that starts with you as the CEO. Click To Tweet

There isn’t any harm in asking for help when you know that this is not a strength. And arguably, if you come from a place of privilege, you may be missing some of these questions. It’s not your fault. I’m not going to hold it against you until I have to hold it against you, but do better.

I think something that’s just very important in conversations like this is when you make a mistake around social issues, it’s likely because of your social conditioning. when you have a knee-jerk reaction, that is your social conditioning because every single one of us, from the most privileged to the least, are raised in a white says hetero centric society. So we all have certain biases that come along with that because we’re all raised in the same society and have internalized bias. 

What you do after that knee-jerk reaction determines whether you’re going to go with it because that was your first response or you’re going to do better next time. You have to remember that having that knee-jerk reaction does not mean anything about you as a person. 

It’s illuminating. If you have that reaction, really take a minute to ask yourself, what does this mean? What lesson have I internalized here that is causing me to lash out so violently over something that should not be this big of a deal? Pay attention to that.

For whatever reason, you have that moment and you don’t examine it internally, you have that split second thought but you just keep going and doing what you always do and then someone calls you out. You find yourself in this space where you’re, I fucked up. I should have done better here. That still doesn’t have to mean anything about you other than you made a bad choice. You fucked up. What determines how most people view you is what you do next. Do you try to fix it and mitigate causing harm going forward or do you say, fuck them, I’m gonna just keep doing what I’m doing? That is your fork in the road moment.

You can take your toys and go home.

That is a totally valid choice. You could absolutely just be like that. Or you could decide to be uncomfortable, to take people’s feedback, and to do the work to do better next time. Those are your options, you could do either one. It’s up to you and people choose to do one or the other every single time. 

So if you want to be a person who leads with these values that you say you have, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. You have to be willing to accept help from people who are willing to educate you and pay them for their labor and you have to be willing to learn how to do better. If you’re not willing to do any of those things, then you’re going to keep fucking up. You’re going to keep getting called out, you’re going to find yourself in some sort of echo chamber of people who agree with you and that’s unfortunate, to say the least.

We are all threads in the human tapestry, we all have to get along because we all exist on this planet together. We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to agree, but we do have to functionally coexist and in order to do that, we have to be willing to examine the ways in which we have hurt other people and try and be better. It’s not easy and it’s also not as hard as some people make it out to be. There is a middle ground where you can be a fucking person who makes mistakes.

I think that’s a perfect place to stop. I thank you so much for being here today. I’ve really loved having this conversation.

This was fun.

Have a great one.

You too, darling.

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About Briar Harvey

Briar Harvey is a storyteller and systems witch. She believes that everything has a story and exists within a system. The trick then, is figuring out how to change the rules, and tell a better story.

You can hear her talk about systems twice a week on her live radio show, Ask Briar. You can also listen to her talk about terrible kids’ movies on the podcast Latchkey Movies. Find her and all of her projects at her website, briarharvey.com.

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