More than ever, customers are holding companies to a higher social standard. They are putting their money where an organization’s mouth is and supporting those that are willing to speak up for a cause. Indeed, brand activism has become expected.
For many businesses, though, communicating a social or political opinion has always been a tricky, potentially treacherous endeavor with uncertain upside. So, in a politically polarized country contending with both the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and historic civil unrest over systemic racism, how should organizations in the United States think about and articulate their responses to issues like racial justice?
A brand that represents a lifestyle
In this hyper-connected, globalized world of consumers who are increasingly interested in social issues and immersed in social media, the things we buy depict who we are and what we believe. Younger people, particularly Millennial and Gen Z individuals, signal their diverse identities by what they wear, what they eat and caring about the way things are made.
People want to feel represented by the brands they use to represent themselves, so they need to know where brands stand on important issues that matter to them. If a brand is incongruent with a person’s belief system, they won’t want to purchase and be associated with it – to have people think the company’s position, or lack thereof, signifies their own.
A 2018 survey found that three-quarters of respondents said they have purchased, or would consider purchasing, from a company to show support for its brand activism. Two-thirds said they had stopped purchasing, or would consider doing so, if a company stood for something that didn’t align with their values.
The days of brands sidestepping politics, tiptoeing around sensitive social issues and trying not to offend anyone are over. Consumers have to know what side of the fence companies are on, so the latter must consider what they actually believe. This also helps brands move beyond the value propositions of their products, to establish authentic relationships with consumers, which is what they’re really after anyway.
When is the right time for brands to take a stand?
Conviction requires standing up for something even if no one else does. If you decide to take a stand when everyone else is already standing, that’s easy and convenient. As soon as a brand becomes socially aware of an issue, when it occurs to them that something feels consistent or inconsistent with their belief system, they should act.
Waiting for an attitude or action to be in vogue and become commonplace won’t feel as powerful, and consumers will sense that you aren’t truly one of them. Stand up when it’s inconvenient, that’s how people will know you’re down with them – because you’re willing to lose customers, lose money, risk it all for what you believe.
Brands and marketers talk a lot about passion. The origin of the word “passion” comes from Latin and means “to suffer.” That’s what conviction is all about – being passionate about something, and thus prepared to struggle for and suffer because of it. Just like people are drawn to those who really care about something, the more passionate a company is, the more consumers will be attracted to it.
At the end of the day, if organizations aren’t open and honest about what they believe, internet investigators and social media sleuths will be transparent for them, and the public will find out. It’s always better to be authentic early and control your brand activism message.
How should businesses speak to the Black community?
“We want to hear that we’re not alone, this is not just our fight, that we have allies in this space and there are people who not only say they’re with us, but they stand with us.” That was Marcus Collins, a Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, on an episode of the Just Minding My Black-Owned Business podcast. “For a long time, everybody loved Black people in February, then after February it’s like, we’ll see you next year. But if you love me, Destiny’s Child says, ‘Say My Name.’
“And saying you love me is not enough, you’ve got to show me. That’s how trust is established, when your actions and your words align. What are you actually going to do? Marketers are always so interested in figuring out what to say. If you look at the statements that come from companies, they’re like, ‘We adamantly stand against discrimination and racial injustice.’ It’s like, yeah, of course, you’re supposed to be against those things – that’s pretty basic.”
Companies shouldn’t want credit for taking social stances on which they should already be built intrinsically, such as human equality, justice and opportunity. And if they are not supportive of certain social issues, hold different beliefs or aren’t inclined toward brand activism, consumers can choose whether to engage with them or not. Alluding again to the idea of inconvenience, Collins says it’s all very commonsense when considered on a human level.
“Don’t tell me you care about me, but when I need you you’re not available,” he said. “We know that when it comes to our friends and loved ones. Relationships, biologically and cognitively, are erected, constructed and negotiated the same way between us with brands and us with people, so the same expectations exist for brands to engage with us as humans.”
What’s the best way to make a public statement?
As with any effective communication, brands should be honest, candid and relatable. In a savvy, fragmented commercial environment where consumers with an abundance of choice can smell BS and brands are finding more success through informative content marketing that usefully serves people’s needs, authenticity is key. Collins even applauds companies that acknowledge they weren’t aware of or doing enough on an issue before, but pledge to be better.
“We’re all ignorant to something,” he said. “I welcome anyone’s awakening and saying, Wow, I see it now, and here’s what we’re gonna do. Don’t break your arm trying to pat yourself on the back, just be real: This is what we believe, therefore, we’re going to do XY and Z.”
Organizations need to remain transparent with and committed to their efforts. Brand activism is not simply posting a statement on social media or, “even worse,” says Collins, writing a check and then washing your hands of an issue. “You can’t treat people that way and you can’t treat communities, who at least transactionally have been loyal to your company, that way either.”
He likens the racial justice movement to the legalization of same-sex marriage, after which brands started waving rainbow flags and participating in gay pride events, because it was no longer taboo or a business risk to stand for the LGBT community. “At that point, a company saying ‘Yeah, us, too,’ it’s like, well, of course you do now,” Collins said. “But were you rocking with us before? That’s where these movements, in the eyes of marketers, become cultural flashpoints instead of meaningful commitments.”
What should brands consider when they decide to act?
Speaking out on something uncomfortable can be scary; the human condition tells us not to be the only one, and there’s safety to fitting in. Companies can display good intent by taking a stand, but they have to be culturally aware and understand the nuances of the people with which they are engaging. The Black community is not a monolith; it is a heterogenous group of individuals who have both shared history and unique lived experiences.
For some businesses, it can be daunting to think about the danger of using offensive language, intentionally or unintentionally. Speaking out respectfully on an issue requires effort, empathy and a willingness to learn. It’s vital to address unconscious racial bias and fix broken or socially complacent organizational cultures to build your brand values from the inside out.
Many experts point to Ben & Jerry’s as a positive example of brand activism. The ice cream company has been actively involved in racial justice and speaks knowledgably and plainly on issues, with statements about dismantling white supremacy and plans of internal and external action. Ben & Jerry’s, says Latia Curry, a principal at the issue-driven communications firm Rally, lives their values. The company has a long track record of speaking out about social issues and has used products to promote political stances, its board is a model of diversity and corporate advocacy extends into grassroots activism.
People don’t want PC phrasing or corporate jargon in a statement; they want authentic, meaningful candor that speaks directly to the community about your beliefs. But they also demand visible, substantive action, says Wil Shelton, CEO and founder of Wil Power Integrated Marketing.
“Make commitments in the areas of education and investing in minority-owned businesses, because small businesses are the lifeblood of communities,” he said, adding that many were overlooked by federal coronavirus relief. Another initiative companies can take, he says, is offering scholarships to get young people of color into industries where they’re underrepresented, bridging the employment gap and creating a pipeline of talent.
What are the potential consequences?
Of course, brand activism can alienate customers who don’t see the world in the same way, and with that may come financial consequences. But inauthenticity is always worse than speaking out with conviction. Playing the field, wanting your products to be purchased by everyone, no matter their background or beliefs, not taking a difficult stand – that works at a company level. But a brand wants to build real relationships with actual humans.
People that want to be friends with everyone act differently with everyone; they’re blowing in the wind and hard to trust because they aren’t genuine. Brands benefit by cultivating an audience that appreciates and shares their sincere social activism, as those people become loyal customers. They use your brand to communicate their identity, and from a financial perspective, you get great customer lifetime value since they stick around longer.
“A tough decision is not a tough decision because we don’t know the answer, but because we know the right thing to do but we’re scared to take the first step,” Shelton says. “You need to have purpose and belief to step out.”
As Curry writes in a Harvard Business Review article on social responsibility: “Companies that blur the lines between their brand and their advocacy are doing so by engaging early, often and in meaningful and lasting ways. They aren’t passive, caught flat-footed or merely reactive. They are consistently engaged. On the flip side, those that dip a toe in the water, ignore clear contradictions and see no connection between what they say and do, expose themselves to ever more ridicule and backlash from consumers who are demanding more and more from the brands they support.”
Have businesses learned the lesson of being real?
Most companies are still learning how to speak out effectively and respectfully on racial justice and police brutality, not to mention gender equality, climate change, immigration and other social issues.
But many organizations are now starting to see their blind spots. They are recognizing that what they thought was normal and acceptable is not necessarily representative of everyone’s experience. They’re trying to figure out how to be culturally appealing without appropriating, how best to speak to and stand up for social issues. They are looking around the room and realizing the people who make big decisions don’t include voices from diverse communities, which may be major consumers of their products. A good start to an inclusive organization, according to Shelton, is 15% minority representation.
While it sounds simplistic, Collins says brand activism is about getting to know people. “That’s really the core of everything we’re supposed to do as marketers,” he says. “Our job is to influence behavior, get people to move, and the only way you get people to move is to understand them, which requires great intimacy and a radical sense of empathy. But also, being able to see the world through their lens, understanding their worldview. And the better we do that, the better we understand the way they make meaning of the world, the better we can serve them as a company and as community members.”
It’s up to all of us – no matter how well-meaning we might be as individual consumers or corporate brands – to do the honest and uncomfortable work of rooting out racism and inequality. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose experiences and perspectives are different from our own, and it ends with justice, opportunity and equality for everyone.