Originally published as part of Art Basel 2021 by Ragan Consulting Group.
As the French were making global headlines for posthumously honoring Josephine Baker, OneUnited Bank– the largest black-owned bank in the U.S. – was likewise building its brand by celebrating the jazz singer, WWII resistance fighter and civil rights activist as part of Miami’s Art Basel.
The bank’s tribute to Baker reflects its commitment to social justice and the arts through its “unapologetically Black” stance. Given the French connection, the bank – represented by Miami-based PR firm Circle of One Marketing – is also using its brand to foster a broader, global dialogue about race and justice.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron inducted Baker into the Panthéon’s Tomb of Heroes – the first Black woman to be bestowed the honor. Two days later, the bank was sponsoring Le Art Noir, a glamourous soirée and exhibit at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center organized by former Miami Dolphins player Louis Oliver.
“This community has been so neglected – this is an amazing event for this community. I mean even to get white folks to come here,” Teri Williams, president and COO of OneUNited Bank says. “It’s been fabulous.”
Indeed, the French state is using its soft power in the U.S. to extend its celebration of Baker, who is credited with desegregating Miami clubs.
NFTs: The Art of ‘each one, teach one’
The French state is using its soft power in the U.S. to extend its celebration of Baker, who is credited with desegregating Miami clubs.
After the French Consulate in Miami commissioned Black artist Addonis Parker to do a painting of Baker, the bank agreed to finance it. While “From Paris with Love” is on display at the consulate, Parker debuted its digital incarnations at Le Art Noir. The bank also bought the first non-fungible token (NFT) in the collection.
OneUnited is just as progressive with tech as it is with social issues. Its thought leadership on topics related to NFTs and cryptocurrency reflects its “early adopter” ethos and desire to educate customers on new technologies. Williams and her team launched mobile banking services in 2006, when apps still had many detractors.
So, when the French proposed a physical painting, OneUnited rallied in more ways than one.
“Hats off to the consulate that they called a Black artist; a lot of times we’re not called,” Williams says. “But it’s limited in terms of who can see it and benefit from it. To connect to the community, we created a series of NFTs that can be sold to our community as a celebration of Josephine Baker and a way for all of us to appreciate the art form.”
Building a brand through authenticity and truth
The bank’s extensive partnership with Parker includes a 2015 mural entitled “Thunder and Enlightening” that he and a group of children created for the bank’s Liberty City location. The painting features myriad scenes depicting racism and the fight for justice – from Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to the Charleston church shooting where nine Blacks were killed by a white supremacist.
Even though she had told Parker to depict the Black experience, Williams had doubts once the mural was completed. It was authentic – but perhaps too authentic for the brand, she thought. Then, she spoke with her father.
“As unapologetically Black as we are, and as much as we are using our art to tell our message…I freaked out,” she says. “And my dad said to me, ‘Is it truthful?’ And I said, ‘yeah, it’s truthful.’ And he said, ‘Then it will be OK.’”
In an era when many people have lost faith in institutions, including financial ones, Williams says truth matters.
“It’s amazing how many times we’re not truthful,” she says. “We all wear masks [in the psychological sense] but in order to connect with people, in order for them to trust you, you have to be truthful.”
The bank is certainly living that truth: scenes from the mural decorate its Visa debit cards. It’s a meaningful way to communicate brand values, including prosperity and peace.
As for Le Art Noir, the event gathered an international group of artists working with social justice themes – from white South African artist Johnathan Schultz to African-American artists Antonio Allen and Charis Kelley.
The event is certainly a milestone in the career of Suzan McDowell, founder and CEO of Circle of One Marketing, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
“OneUnited Bank is such an awesome client to work with; our agency is committed to supporting issues related to Black empowerment – which align with the bank’s economic and social justice mission to close the racial wealth gap,” McDowell says. “Although banking isn’t considered the most fascinating industry, OneUnited Bank is always pushing the envelope with exciting, cutting-edge tech initiatives like its support of Addonis Parker’s Josephine Baker NFT.”
For his part, Parker is grateful for the commercial and governmental partnerships empowering him to bolster his own brand internationally and digitally, through the NFTs.
“I admire Josephine Baker’s strength at such a young age and how she stayed focused on her mission during her life,” Parker says. “I’m motivated by the freedom that OneUnited gives me as an artist to protest for social change.”