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Brief Published: 2 Jun 2020

Brand Response to Black Lives Matter Uprisings

The massive wave of anti-racism protests sweeping across the US is pushing brands to take a stand on the issue. Quick responses reflect consumer expectations of corporate purpose, while pushback on what the public perceive as disingenuous messaging offers valuable lessons on business inclusivity. We highlight key directives as the situation develops.

  • Silence Is a Statement in Itself: Several brands underscored a moral imperative to speak up. “To be silent is to be complicit,” TV streaming service Netflix posted, while Nike urges “Don't sit back and be silent” in a video titled For Once, Don’t Do It – flipping its famous ‘Just do it’ tagline.

    Linking to the Change.org petition Justice for George Floyd – the unarmed Black man killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking the unrest – US shoe brand New Balance said: “We’re finding a voice to advocate on issues about which we cannot be silent.” However, as brands rushed to jump on the bandwagon, sentiments grew hollow, and a meme mocked more generic corporate statements.

    On June 1, US conglomerate ViacomCBS’s media properties, including broadcasters MTV, BET and Nickelodeon, disrupted broadcasts for eight minutes and 46 seconds – mirroring the length of time that Floyd was pinned by the neck under the officer’s knee. They aired a video reading “I can’t breathe”, along with text directing audiences to racial justice group Color of Change. Music-streaming service Spotify also added an 8.46-minute track of silence to select playlists.
  • Cash Means More than Hashtags: Consumers are calling out brands’ empty gestures. Following Disney’s statement “We stand for inclusion” on May 31, the responding Tweet “Open your purse Mickey Mouse” gained 51,000 likes in 24 hours (more than Disney’s received).

    By contrast, cult US cosmetics brand Glossier stepped up with a two-pronged million-dollar commitment – which made internet behemoth YouTube’s $1m donation to US non-profit the Center for Policing Equity appear miserly, by comparison. Glossier will give half the sum to organisations including Black Lives Matter and The Equal Justice Initiative, and the remainder to Black-owned beauty businesses (details to follow later this month).

    One of the biggest donations to the cause came from US telecoms firm Verizon, whose chief executive Hans Vestberg announced a $10m donation to social justice organisations in an emotional video statement.

    Brands are also directing followers to donate. US streetwear retailer Kith, for instance, listed some of the funds it will be supporting (without dollar specifics) and asked brand fans to donate, too. Announcing a $500,000 donation to Black rights organisation the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), US cycle-fitness brand Peloton urged consumers to donate, as well as “learn ways to practice anti-racism”.
  • Change Starts at Headquarters: Even where brand actions are generally applauded, critics are pointing out hypocrisy if their business structure does not reflect the same inclusivity. British advertising consultant Cindy Gallop responded to Nike’s video by noting: “Not one Black person on your executive leadership team for a company that’s made billions out of Black sports people and consumers.” Less than 5% of Nike’s director-level executives are Black (Nike, 2019).

    The moment seemed to spark at least some internal reflection. Popular NY-based culinary website Serious Eats, for instance, said it would refrain from publishing new content this week. Instead, it will use the time to “have difficult conversations about our organization and the content we produce” – acknowledging that, as Serious Eats has no Black staff members, “we are also part of the problem”. Similarly, US restaurant-review website The Infatuation stated: “We do not have enough diversity on our team at any level,” and said the brand hasn’t done enough to ensure more widely representative coverage.

    And when leadership is unresponsive, employees are taking action – a hashtag (#takeaction) adopted by the Facebook staff who staged a ‘virtual walkout’ on June 1 to protest against the company’s refusal to censor posts by President Trump seen as inciting violence during the unrest.

To look at how brands engage with Black consumers, see Black History Month 2020: Brand Takeaways. See also No Offence: Speak the Language of Now for more on how brands can develop more culturally aware communications.

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