How brands should respond to protests and rising racial tensions
As protests filled the streets of nearly every major American city over the weekend, brands began flooding social media with anti-racism messages, including bold proclamations of how they plan to address the injustice highlighted by the police-involved death of George Floyd. But before firing off knee-jerk responses, brands should consider carefully their broader strategy. Because talk is cheap and consumers will punish marketers who fail to follow through with action, or are seen as inauthentic, branding experts say.
“The reality of it is, as a community, a black community, we are tired. This is no longer just our fight. It’s very difficult for a brand to just sit on the sidelines and say this isn’t going to impact their brand or their business,” says Ahmad Islam, CEO of Ten35, an agency that specializes in reaching multicultural, millennial and Gen Z consumers. “Brands have to first establish their voice and their position and then from there, start to take action.”
Indeed, a recent poll from Morning Consult found that 71 percent of Americans say it’s important for a business leader to address racial inequality in the U.S., and 64 percent say these leaders should help handle the protests occurring as a result of Floyd’s death. A majority of those surveyed said they want brands to set up funds in support of small businesses and retailers affected by the looting.
Below, some guidance from experts on how brands should proceed.
Generalized statements simply don’t cut it anymore—a point made by an image circulating on social media that makes fun of the paint-by-numbers approach some brands have taken.
“You can show your support but show people how you are going to put action behind it,” says Steve Canal, co-founder of One Venture Group, whose services include helping brands tap into culturally relevant topics. “Plan it out, don’t be in a rush to put out a comment.”
Donations might not be enough
Plenty of brands, including Levi Strauss & Co. and YouTube, have already pledged donations to social justice organizations. But money alone is not enough, suggests Islam. “There is an opportunity to take a more innovative, proactive approach to how to create change as opposed to just writing a big check,” he says. He cites Peloton’s response as a pitch-perfect example. In an email to members on Sunday, CEO John Foley pledged a $500,000 donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But he also said Peloton was developing an “anti-racism plan to ensure that our organization can be the best version of itself, from the inside out,” while committing to “sharing more about our efforts as they take shape. Please know that we will move quickly and that our actions will be sustained.”
J. Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer, brand and marketing, in the consulting division of Kantar, advises brands to get involved at the local level. “It’s not just about making contributions to the right organizations, or making statements of commitment to these kinds of values,” he says. “Consumers are looking to companies to take steps to do positive things in their community,” he adds, noting that every city across the nation right now is a different place undergoing different stages of unrest.
Nike drew plenty of praise for its “Don’t Do It” ad, which was released on Friday evening and spoke against racism in blunt terms. But the ad also opened the sportswear giant to criticism of the racial makeup of its leadership team. Cindy Gallop, ad industry veteran and equality rights activist, tweeted a link to the company’s website showing 10 top executives at the company, all of whom are white. A Nike spokeswoman responded that Melanie Harris, a black woman who serves as the company's VP of strategy and development, is also part of the team, while adding that the company will “continue to sharpen our focus on hiring more black leaders across all levels at the company.”
But the reality is that marketing leadership teams at most companies remain overwhelmingly white. A recent report from executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart shows that only 14 percent of chief marketing officers come from diverse backgrounds. Only 1 percent of CEOs in the S&P 500 Index are black, while African-American directors comprise only about 1 percent of board members and 37 percent of boards didn’t have a single black member, according Bloomberg News, which cited analysis from Black Enterprise magazine.
“If the face of your company, your entire leadership team, the majority of your staff, is all white, it’s difficult as a brand to say that we embrace diversity and we stand with people of color,” Islam says. “So start to make those changes to your culture.”
Acknowledge your past
Statements of support for the black community can’t be made in a vacuum—brands must acknowledge their own histories of dealing with racial matters. The National Football League is drawing heat for a statement put out by Commissioner Roger Goodell in which he expresses condolences to Floyd’s family, while committing to address “systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”
Critics are using the statement to bring up Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback who has not been picked up by an NFL team since the 2016-17 season, in which he kneeled during the National Anthem to protest racial inequalities. Houston Texans player Kenny Stills replied to the NFL’s tweeted statement by tweeting, “Save the bullshit.”
“To come out and make that statement that they did is unauthentic—and people read through it,” Canal says. Asked about the criticism, an NFL spokesman pointed to the league’s ongoing Inspire Change social justice effort, which he stated has raised more than $44 million in funding for non-profit organizations that focus on community and police relations and criminal justice reform.
Lewis Williams, executive VP, chief creative officer of multicultural agency Burrell Communications, says that many brands are struggling to communicate because they were previously silent, but he adds that brands should acknowledge that silence and turn it into a force for change moving forward. Marketers should also not be swayed by fear of backlash on social media. "It doesn't matter if you’ve been quiet, but you acknowledge it,” he says. “Don’t struggle with how you might be received.”
Don’t walk away from promises
One of the worst things a brand can do right now is make a commitment and then abandon it in a few weeks after the news cycle passes, experts say. Williams says that consumers will be checking in on brands to ensure they’ve made good on the promises of diversity and inclusion that they are currently making for the future.
“Nike was out there swimming by itself, with a few others, and everybody else stayed on the beach—now, everybody’s in the water,” he says, noting Nike’s history of supporting the black community including its 2017 Equality campaign and its support for Kaepernick in 2018. “What happens the next day when all the cameras leave and nobody is watching? Social media will be watching.”