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Brands As Part of a Movement

A Black man by the name of George Floyd is murdered on the street in Minneapolis and the world shakes once again, but this time it is different. His murder, along with the deaths of other Black men and women across our country, has shaken us all and sparked a moment of reflection and conversation. Our current dialogue goes beyond our immediate social circles and kitchen tables. These conversations on race and racial injustice are now part of our virtual meetings at work and part of the brands we follow, purchase and consume. Everyone, including brands, are recognizing these are necessary conversations, even if they make us feel uncomfortable. Slowly, we are seeing major brands and companies speak up, make declarations or take action.

We first saw this brand response in the immediate days following George Floyd’s death. Some brands quickly put out statements, others donated to relevant organizations, while others went further and began to make internal changes in an effort to ultimately change their way of working. As brand and CEO statements began to flood social media, it was natural to wonder which brands were speaking their truth, and which were offering rushed messaging to appease consumers in the moment.

While we may always question intention in moments like this, it feels like the paradigm has truly shifted this time, and brands are trying to become more racially and socially just and values-based. In early June, Twitter declared Juneteenth as a corporate holiday; recognizing it as a day of celebration, education and connection. We also saw Sephora become one of the first retail brands to join the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative where major retailers pledge at least 15% shelf space to black-owned businesses. We’ve also seen shifts on a cultural level as NASCAR banned the presence of Confederate flags at its races and in the NFL with the newly named Washington Football Team. While this progress is encouraging, it isn’t up to one brand or a collection of brands in a specific category to take a stance and commit, it needs to be a collective. As GM CEO Mary Barra said recently on the “Back to Biz” podcast with Katie Couric and Netflix Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John, “…I want every company to be the most inclusive because it’s not something we should compete on, it’s something we have to dedicate ourselves to do. It’s valued-based and you can’t stay silent when something fundamentally happening is so inconsistent with your values…you have a responsibility to act.”

What does this mean for brands going forward? This shift may mean that superficial overtures are no longer enough and that brands need to back up any gesture with true action. In this particular moment, consumers have called out brands who just posted a few words of solidarity on social media and not much else. They’ve also lauded brands who have acted swiftly and meaningfully. For example,
beauty brand Glossier made a $1 million dollar donation to organizations combating racial injustice, while fitness brand Peloton donated $500,000 to the NAACP legal defense fund. Peloton CEO John Foley stated, “we must ensure this (Peloton) is an anti-racist organization.” Actions like these speak to more than the current moment – they indicate where the brand stands and where the brand plans to go in the future.

Beyond this, it’s important for a brand to take a stance that resonates with its most true values and then commit to it. Change starts with valuing the safety of your employees, recognizing and acknowledging the existence of racial oppression, and having awareness of offensive marketing or branding both internally and externally. Removing racism takes time and it isn’t a quick fix. However, making a commitment and taking action to change is one way brands can start to show their consumers, partners and employees that this change is lifelong. That change can either be in a statement or a new declaration of practices, supporting a cause by making yearly contributions or looking at an entire diverse pool of candidates when making selections on the company’s executive board. Hopefully, the actions and commitments we are beginning to see happening now are what we continue to see forever in our future.