The conventional wisdom among brand marketers until recently has been to avoid divisive and political issues for fear of alienating a large section of their buying public. Unfortunately, too many companies view the recent outcry over the deaths of several Black people at the hands of law enforcement as another opportunity to take a hands-off approach. Brands run an existential risk if their actions (or inaction) compels customers to perceive them as deaf to the cries of people demanding justice.
At a time when we are witnessing both increased instances of insensitive, biased, and downright hateful speech online and off, and a greater awareness of social injustice, brands must come down on the right side of history. Customers demand the brands they buy take a stand for what is right. Well over half (56 percent) of survey respondents said brands are morally and socially obligated to take a stand against racism. Consumers understand that, as the Rev. Desmond Tutu wrote, “if you remain neutral in situations of injustices, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Companies and organizations — like all decent individuals — are outraged by these episodes and want to offer support for Black Lives Matter and all those protesting for change. This can prove challenging, however, to marketers and company leaders who have never experienced racism, sexism, or other prejudice firsthand. Know that you probably will make mistakes. Advocating for social reform is uncharted territory for most commercial brands.
I spoke to several marketing experts and social justice leaders who shared tips for anyone wanting to make an active and conscious effort to champion anti-racism.
“Companies must declare that Black Lives Matter every day, starting today,” says Andrea G. Tatum, senior director of corporate equity engagement at Catalyst Inc. “BLM is not a trend, it’s a revolution, and before companies launch a ‘BLM campaign,’ they have to look internally first to be a part of the change.”
The other experts agreed that committing to put your own house in order opens your organization up to greater scrutiny. That’s a good thing. Your employees, customers, suppliers, and other associates not only will assure you follow through on your promises; they will help you achieve them. They might even emulate them, compounding the positive effect you can have. Here’s how to show your support for BLM:
Think Before you Speak
Before posting anything about BLM, think it through to ensure you project both the image you want your brand to nurture and the way it will sound to customers and the Black community.
Consider bringing in your Black Employee Resource Group (or Black employees from other departments or perhaps customers) to be part of a working group to review marketing messages and company policies. This task force can help you draft your statement. They are on the “front lines” and can evaluate messages that resonate while staying on point. This advice assumes you have marshaled a Black Employee group and that you are providing them with appropriate resources before asking for their help. If not, there is no better time. And if you don’t have enough Black workers to form a working group, you should take steps to rectify the situation. Do not depend on one or a few Black associates to represent the diverse Black community.
“There is a physical and emotional tax when you are ‘an only’. It can be frustrating voicing an opinion on a team that’s focused solely on the numbers - revenue growth, market share, and the bottom line - rather than listening to diverse input and considering the human element of marketing,” says Tatum.
Calling on your Black Employee Resource Group should become a regular practice that extends beyond BLM. This focus group can tell you if an image or phrase could be considered patronizing, degrading, or biased, helping your company avoid embarrassing and damaging missteps like the one Pepsi made in 2017.
“It is likely your Black employees have previously voiced opinions on problematic branding. Listen to them, believe them when they raise concerns,” says Tatum, who began her career as a marketer for several non-profit arts organizations before committing to a career advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech.
Market researchers pay big money for these kinds of insights. Compensate your internal focus group members either through bonus pay or ensuring their contribution is acknowledged in their annual reviews. Not doing so would send the terrible message that you do not value their feedback, perpetuating the problem.
Make a Statement
When you are ready to put out a statement, evaluate your company’s past actions or inactions when it comes to standing up for equality. If your brand has been less-than-vocal in calling out racial injustice, or its business policies have inadvertently harbored bias, acknowledge those areas in which your company has dropped the ball. Apologize sincerely, and outline your plan to make things better. Do not attempt to minimize the harm past policies may have caused or to justify your actions. Your customers and employees do not expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to be contrite, listen to constructive feedback, chronicle your growth as an organization, and make good on a promise to lead by example moving forward.
Tanal Basma, a strategic consultant to Silicon Valley firms, notes that companies undertaking these initiatives will enhance their employer brand. A 2019 LinkedIn study showed that more than 75% of job seekers research a company's reputation before applying. A solid employer brand reinforces the public's image of your organization, increases your number of qualified candidates, your offer acceptance rates, and creates advocates among your employees. It helps in differentiating your company from the competition and genuinely creating more profound and lasting connections with your employees and customers alike.
“The key is to be upfront not only about what you intend to accomplish and how you will go about it, but also the actual metrics you want to achieve,” she said. “Track and report on how many Black employees you have hired, developed, and retained. Review the processes you have implemented to ensure they have a clear path forward within your organization.”
Your message must be genuine, accepting, and inclusive to be effective. That is, it must align with your company’s mission and values--a culture that shines through in the way you do business and interact with the Black community.
If your company policies celebrate different cultures, welcome diverse viewpoints, and embrace mutual learning and understanding among customers and employees, make it known. And if it doesn’t, marketers can be an agent for change in the organization. Saba Mirza, product marketing director for Automation Anywhere, a provider of digital transformation technology, says companies can start by looking at the image they project onto their products.
“Marketing is a powerful motivator. The images and words you present to your stakeholders are just the beginning. Of course, your marketing messages should portray all races respectfully and inclusively. But you have to go beyond that,” Mirza says. The company values come first. Take a hard look at what you stand for, how you embody that stance, and then your choice of visuals and copy will flow organically.
Once you have aligned your brand image to your company’s inherent beliefs and support for social justice, you can leverage this bully pulpit. You will be well-positioned to act — to confront bigotry head-on, decisively, and authentically. Speak out! This is not a time to merely be non-racist. As a brand, you now can use your platform to set an example as an unapologetic anti-racist.
Back It Up
This means acknowledging, spotlighting, and doing something about the racial inequities plaguing the country. It is a fact that Black people have been and continue to be victimized by systemic racism, which restricts access to educational opportunities, judicial recourse, healthcare resources, political influence, and other areas synonymous with opportunity.
“We have gone from the point of realization to the urgent need for action, being reminded during these rallies for justice that to be silent is to be complicit. Brands cannot simply pay lip service to the movement,” explains Mirza, who has nearly 20 years’ experience in marketing, including six years at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “Anyone can say that Black Lives Matter, but it’s not enough to claim it on social or your website. Your brand values must come to life with decisive actions for positive change.”
“Start by understanding that Black people have had to deal with prejudice and overcome institutional bias," she says. "Unless we can have hard conversations around race and how biases affect the decisions made within organizations, we will not make much progress."
Actively supporting BLM should include helping end discrimination, whether it manifests in individuals or institutions.
Your actions and support of organizations that bring equality and empowerment to underserved communities are notable. Your efforts to actively recruit Black-owned businesses as partners and suppliers should be highlighted in your marketing.
"Companies may need to revise evaluation criteria to expand their candidate pool as well as the systems to deliver a fair and consistent experience - from recruiting and hiring to developing and retaining employees. For instance, rewriting job descriptions, partnering with diversity job channels, using blind screening practices, and rethinking performance evaluation criteria are all critical steps towards leveling the field," Basma advises.
Companies need to emulate the behaviors they want to see both internally and externally. Providing the space for employees to talk openly about the challenges surrounding race and social justice, then working together to drive real change would be an admirable step. You could start by choosing a worthy organization to sponsor. Donate money, in-kind, and time. Become educated about the group’s mission, struggles, and successes. You might even pay employees their regular wage to work for the cause a day or two a month.
Call ‘Em as You See ‘Em
As an advertiser and a recognized brand, you have the power to “vote with your wallet” (or more precisely, your marketing budget). The media, influencers, and platforms companies do business with is a reflection of their culture and values. The same is true for social platforms and the user-generated content they publish. Mark Zuckerberg is learning that lesson the hard way. Zuckerberg’s Facebook lost $56 billion after a coalition of anti-racist groups called out the social media platform for being soft on hate-speech. The Anti-Defamation League teamed with BLM, the NAACP, and others to launch Stop Hate for Profit, calling on advertisers to pull their support from Facebook. Coca-Cola and Unilever, among other deep-pocketed brands, heeded the call, and Zuckerberg’s stock portfolio is $7 billion lighter as a result. Note that Facebook itself posted nothing offensive. It did, however, fail to censor posts that incited racial violence and promoted white supremacist doctrines.
Illustrating the tightrope marketers must walk in these surreal times, brands are taking heat not only for advertising on certain sites but also for not advertising on sites that carry accounts of the BLM protests. Brands have long engaged third parties to block their ads from running alongside content they do not want to associate with. These “brand safety” measures, for instance, might prevent a Planned Parenthood ad from being juxtaposed with a story about an anti-abortion protest or an NRA banner from topping an article detailing a mass shooting. But companies “protecting” their marketing messages from stories containing words like “protest,” “George Floyd,” and “BLM” risk portraying themselves as ostriches, lacking the fortitude to face the issues their followers care about.
I am a privileged white woman who, like so many others, wants to support BLM but feels inadequately prepared to do so. My goal in this article was to reach out to others more qualified than I to help me understand the steps I can take to make my world more racially inclusive and accepting. Right now. My platform is to elevate Black voices and women of color in hopes of educating myself and others who are on the same journey of discovery. Please reach out if you would like to clarify anything in this article or can help these efforts in any way.
Kate Walling is a marketing consultant for high growth companies. She is the founder of Traction Hero, a Silicon Valley marketing agency. Connect with Kate on LinkedIn, Twitter, or learn more about her at KateWalling.com.