Brands show solidarity with George Floyd protests, but can they contribute to real change?

For once, Don’t Do It | Nike

Over the past few days, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and L’Oreal are among some of the corporates that have taken a stand on racial injustice and police violence following on from the death of George Floyd. As protests about the brutality faced by black individuals and communities continue to intensify across the US, how can brands show solidarity in a meaningful way?

Following a long, devastating history of black Americans losing their lives in police custody, the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last week (25 May) has incited a pained response across America.

For six days straight, the country has erupted in protest with no end in sight. With many citizens physically retaliating against institutional racism, the response from brands has been largely tepid with most hesitant to enter into what they perceive as political territory.

Some advertisers were quick to react, however, taking much more public stances on racial injustice and police violence than previously. But are these displays of solidarity meaningful, and what actions – beyond mere words of support – should advertisers be taking if they want to enact positive change?

How have brands shown solidarity?

Brands lending support to the protests have primarily used social media to align themselves to the movement via a set of hashtags, including #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForFloyd.

Ben & Jerry’s took to Twitter on 27 May, two days after George Floyd’s death, to share its “heartbreak” and express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. With activism at the heart of its brand, its tweet points to the time the ice-cream maker previously took a similar stand, in response to the Ferguson unrest when Michael Brown was shot dead by police, and laments that its words then are still “just as relevant” four years on.

Not one to shy away from standing up to racism, Nike’s Dream Crazy advert featuring American Football player Colin Kaepernick set a precedent for brands. True to form, over the weekend Nike delivered ‘For once, don’t do it’. A powerful play on its iconic tagline, the film urged people to not turn their backs on racism.

Nike’s longtime rival Adidas shared Nike’s Twitter post, commenting: ”Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”

Joining Nike in inverting famous taglines, L’Oreal Paris took to social media to share the message ‘Speaking Out is Worth it’.

The pain of the last week reminds us how far our country has to go to give every person the freedom to live with dignity... Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday, 31 May 2020

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg took to the platform to announce he was donating $10m to groups working on racial justice. Streaming giant Netflix, meanwhile, has garnered 1m likes for a post addressing the issue, stating: ”To be silent is to be complicit, Black lives matter.”

Disney has also shared a message of support, claiming it ”stands against racism”.

To show its support, Twitter changed its profile image to a black-and-white version of its logo, accompanied by the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

In a similar vein, Google added a supportive message beneath its search bar that reads: ”We stand in support of racial equality, and all those who search for it.”

Can brands contribute to real change?

What actual good these words of support will do in the fight against systemic racism is not easy to gauge. While resistance has heated up over the weekend, it arrives after years of resilience, and while these protests will eventually cease, brands that choose to stay silent now will find it harder to join the discourse later on.

”I think seeing brands stand as allies at this time and speaking up about racism and issues concerning how black people are treated is a good thing,” says Cephas Williams, founder of 56 Black Men.

”What we have to appreciate is that brands hold global influence on many levels, from the consumer to customer to employees and other parties, so for brands to be silent at this time could in fact do more harm than good.

”Now is not the time to be silent, neither is it the time to jump on a bandwagon. It’s a time for real reflection and care with regards to how a brand and its leaders stand by the black community at this time and move forward with real steps to end racism and injustice globally and not only on the streets but in their organizations too. Organizations can not promise that their staff are not racist, but they can promise that they will not tolerate it.”

Belinda Smith, global diversity ambassador at the World Federation of Advertisers, agrees that brands publicly voicing their support is the least that can be done, but she argues that this needs to translate into action to have a meaningful impact.

”That is what is important and appropriate right now,” she says. ”Even if the answer is: ’We don’t know what to do, but we’re working on it and will come back with a firm commitment.’ Saying something is the first step. Now do something.”

In order to be true allies, Smith says brands need to first take care of black employees and advocate for them.

”Have your chief exec do interviews about this topic. Don’t let this die in the dark. Force it into the light. Don’t be afraid to do something. Your entire workforce is suffering. If you’re a leader worth your pay, you will act. If you are a corporation full of high-paid execs, I’m trusting someone in your organization is smart enough to know what to do.

”Stop asking black people who are fighting for their own lives to tell you what you should do about it. You make the big bucks. Not us.”

Smith, who previously worked brand-side at gaming giant EA, says the standard protocol for most advertisers is to turn off all routine marketing campaigns in the wake of a tragedy and she advises marketers to consider these circumstances no different.

”To everyone still moving forward with personalized email campaigns – like the ones I’ve seen from HBO Max – or promoted Twitter ads about unrelated products, etc, you should all go back to school to learn how to properly be a marketer.

”Blacks are not dumb enough to ignore when you deem things a tragedy and when you do not. And for all the messaging I’ve seen some brands in ’solidarity’ they have been spread through organic sharing... why are you all so afraid to put media budget behind those messages if you do, in fact, stand with us?”

Deadra Rahaman, founder and president of Society Redefined and contributor to Nielsen's Diverse Intelligence Series 2019, says that "while the recent senseless murder of George Floyd has tipped the cup of tolerance there are brands speaking out that have never taken the leap into social justice before."

Rahaman welcomes this, saying she's encouraged by brand leaders addressing their employees and acknowledged their pain. "This is very different from just four years ago," she says in reference to brand responses to the Ferguson Uprising.

While Rahaman compliments Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, P&G and McDonald's for past efforts, she admits is reluctant to commend Nike.

"They get a big gold star for standing with Colin Kaepernick and being the first to say uncomfortable truths," she contends.

Not all brands that have offered their support have been well-received, highlighting the need to have your house in order. Munroe Bergdorf took to Twitter to condemn L'Oreal for jumping on the movement.

"Consumers are savvy enough to peel back the optics. How are you investing and impacting my community? We need brands to show up not just give us words," Rahaman asks.

Trevor Robinson, founder and executive creative director at Quiet Storm, says that because this is such a serious and important issue, ”anything that takes a stance will earn respect and contribute in some way to the bigger movement”. But, he caveats, ”actions speak louder than words”.

Robinson goes on: ”After you’ve sent out your tweet, why not donate to causes that are working towards positive change in society? We all have a job to do to try and change the way that some people in this world think, and are set on thinking. If brands can help with that then great – they have the potential to reach a lot of people through their platforms, and they have the power to effect change.”

As Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego, co-founder of Niche On Demand, adds, some brands’ words will carry more weight than others, based on their past deeds.

“Brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Netflix and American Express’s messages to the black community are deeply appreciated because, outside of crisis, they demonstrate consistency and acknowledgment, which makes their words now authentic and empathetic,“ she says.

“Simply put, they have a relationship with the black community. Their activist voice contributes to real change because they have acknowledged there is a problem, called it by its name openly and accept the costs.“

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