In the past month, I have probably had more conversations about race and justice than I have had in my entire adult life. Aside from friends and personal acquaintances, it has been especially interesting and enlightening to experience client conversations that organically pivot from marketing strategies to robust discussions about topics such as microaggressions and my own history of police encounters.
Recently, a dear friend and colleague from Higher Education tentatively asked me a very intriguing question: “Richard, is all this change happening too fast?” My immediate thought was “Only if you consider 400 years too fast.”, but to be intellectually objective I needed to take a moment and reflect on the last few weeks and evaluate the question from a perspective outside my personal experience and through a macro lens of how others may be consuming this accelerated push towards sweeping social justice and a vocal anti-racism cultural shift.
As individuals, we may have our own opinions on the speed and substance of this national movement, but it is becoming clearer that companies across all industries are almost compelled to acknowledge that change is upon us, and it may be time to better define who they are and what they stand for even if it means initially losing some of their customer base.
NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its racing events. Food giant Nestle is auditing its 25,000 products to eliminate any that are marketed with racial stereotypes like those sold under its South American brand Beso de Negra. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth and the Cream of Wheat chef are all being reconsidered and removed as manufacturers substantiate their branding revisions with statements that reflect a need to evolve these images with the acknowledgement that in some cases, their “origins are based on a racial stereotype.” Even the popular video game Fortnite has quietly removed police cars from its video scenarios, reportedly in response to the protests following the death of George Floyd.
No matter the size of the brand, from emerging startups to multinational corporations, in the current climate decision makers may find themselves asking the question:
Why should I even take a stance on social justice or racism?
Is it worth inviting controversy and possibly alienating consumers that are either indifferent to social issues or unabashedly unsympathetic to the social challenges faced by communities of color?
I think it is always wise to start with the Why. If your company cannot identify a why, the question of how to keep pace with this cultural shift is not even relevant. If you are seeking some data points to assist in discovering your Why, the website Engage for Good, offers this advice: “When it comes to brand purpose and corporate social responsibility, there’s a growing mountain of evidence that links doing well and doing good.”
Here are just some of the statistics that offer context to their assertion.
- 81% say trust in a brand to do what’s right is a deal-breaker or deciding factor in their brand buying decision. Edelman 2020
- 73% of respondents believe that a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve conditions in communities where it operates Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer
- 86% of consumers believe that companies should take a stand for social issues and 64% of those who said it’s ‘extremely important’ for a company to take a stand on a social issue said they were ‘very likely’ to purchase a product based on that commitment. 2018 Shelton Group’s ‘Brands & Stands: Social Purpose is the New Black
- 72% of Americans say they feel it is more important than ever that the companies they buy from reflect their values. 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study
- Nearly nine-in-10 consumers (86%) say they’re likely to purchase from purpose-driven companies. 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study
- Brands with a purpose set on improving our quality of life outperform the stock market by 120%. Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2017
- By 2050, our country stands to realize an $8 trillion gain in GDP by closing the U.S. racial equity gap. National Civic League 2018
When you take into consideration that most of these statistics were captured before the recent protests and the accelerated momentum to address symbols of racism and negative stereotypes, it would be prudent for companies to take heed and commit accordingly.
If you also consider the buying power of communities of color who are at the center of the movement for social justice, brands should also factor the $1.4 trillion annual buying power of Black consumers and the additional $1.7 trillion of the American Latinx population.
Taking a Stand while Making a Difference
While there are company culture, brand image and consumer appeal benefits for committing to social change, there also needs to be an authentic moral commitment to the cause. While many brands are making powerful statements in support of Black Lives Matter and asserting their advocacy for social justice, as noted in a recent Forbes article, “While making a statement is important, brands must ensure their words are backed with real actions and impact.”
Don’t just Tweet About it, Be About It
While some heartfelt social media post affirming your intolerance for racism may garner “likes” and shares, the actions that follow the acknowledgement will ultimately determine your brand as either positive or just posing.
As VOX writer Terry Nguyen points out, “All over social media, consumers are repeating the mantra “open your purse” to these corporate platitudes and vague statements of solidarity.” Once you offer your social media allegiance to the cause, there is an expectation of tangible action that funds or actively facilitates social change
Multicultural representation from the boardroom to billboards should be an operational priority for companies that aim to be purpose-driven when it comes to social change. Before you announce your solidarity to Black Lives Matter or the call to action for social change, evaluating your internal diversity should be an organizational imperative. Your well -intentioned messages of support are likely to be scrutinized and challenged on social media and beyond if your internal commitment to multicultural representation is lacking or non-existent.
Many would consider the banning of the Confederate flags by NASCAR a significant contribution to the cause for social change especially given the affinity that much of its base has for this controversial symbol. NASCAR went even further in its commitment by naming Brandon Thompson, an African American, its first ever VP of Diversity and Inclusion.
In contrast to NASCAR, in early June, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg offered this on his personal Facebook page: “To help in this fight, I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety.” He should start with addressing diversity and inclusion at his company. According to Reuters, “African Americans make up less than 4% of Facebook’s workforce and about 3% of its senior leadership, compared to 13% of the U.S. populace, according to company disclosures.”
Connect with your Community
While some bigger companies have the financial resources to write sizable checks to social justice causes, most companies have the human resources to participate in activities that benefit their communities. While racism and social justice represent some of the larger issues being addressed at this time, there are causes that can be addressed at the local level that can serve as catalysts for social change. Galvanizing your teams to provide assistance with food insecurity, or building homes through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity not only places your organization on the front lines of positive change, but can also stimulate team building and a positive company culture.
Given the public health conditions that currently exist, connecting with your community may require some digital creativity. Considering the impact of unemployment, especially in communities of color, hosting online entrepreneurship or career-focused workshops may be a more feasible endeavor. Adopting a charitable organization committed to social justice and fundraising for them using your online platforms, may be another way to become a community change agent in our current socially distanced reality.
Ultimately…It’s a choice.
At this juncture of American and global history, individuals and brands are faced with a choice: silence or support of the movement for substantive social change. Brands, just as individuals, can simply “sit this one out” and maintain corporate ambivalence on the issues. There are also those that will make a statement of solidarity, add a few hashtags, and then carry on with business as usual.
Then there will be those who evaluate their purpose and make a full-throated commitment to a proactive stance in support of positive social change. These companies will thoroughly assess their internal structure and external presence to ensure that they are authentically reflecting diversity and inclusion, while developing initiatives that spread that positive culture into the communities they serve.
These genuinely purpose-driven companies may initially lose some consumers, but hopefully they will gain and retain even more: and when it’s all said and done, this latter group of companies will be important contributors to the sustainable changes in our social construct that ensure history does not chronicle this movement as just another moment.