Is BLM a hashtag, an organization, a human right, a movement, a political statement, or all the above?

Brand activism in the Black Lives Matter era

This article is part of a series of articles from the WARC Guide to brand activism in the Black Lives Matter era.

The ability of “Black Lives Matter” to transcend the gaze of a general population definition gives it a superpower. A provocative and oft-debated syllogism. A poignant literary masterpiece. An ever-evolving catalyst of conversation. And to activists, allies, and accomplices, a forever mood.

But whatever it is to you, it most certainly means something different to groups across your office, your neighborhood, your company, and beyond. However Black Lives Matter is defined, though, it is something brands must address.

One reason its definition is so unclear is that unlike some past civil rights movements – or movements, for that matter – that had a single leader or hierarchy, Black Lives Matter is a chorus of voices, led by its three women founders, diffusing power and attention across a spectrum of issues impacting the socio-economic advancement of Black people.

Most companies are navigating their way through acknowledgement, acceptance, and reconciliation. For instance, L’Oreal fired – and re-instated – a Black transgender model; Red Bull made dismissals and organizational changes when racially insensitive materials emerged; and the NFL took a holistic approach that will ultimately amount to a $1B investment in the Black community. Whether a zero-tolerance approach now or a multi-year investment in building for tomorrow, brand action, as well as inaction, will be noted by communities, as custom research conducted for this Guide demonstrates.

And then there’s Nike. Thrust into the limelight due to its sponsorship of Colin Kaepernick, it found itself in the middle of a movement years ahead of the wave of brands that recently affirmed solidarity in 2020. Nike’s choice: take action for a community that has helped push the brand into the zeitgeist of culture. The stock tumbled, initially. Then recovered and grew by 50%, long-term. People burned jerseys, initially. And then begged for sports to carry-on. And eventually, the NFL decided to back players who choose to kneel. Like public sentiment for Black Lives Matter, your brand appeal may rise and fall occasionally. But, in the sea of “brand purpose,” you must truly ask: what are you willing to stand for and what are you willing to defend?

With that in mind, we hope this Guide will be informative, illustrative, and, most importantly, actionable for audiences including business leaders, marketing and communication professionals, and the media industry. We also hope it brings inspiration, along the way to curating the best new thinking, research, and actionable advice.

The Guide is organized into four chapters:

  1. The movement reaches critical mass: A look at how BLM galvanized global attention and the need for a reckoning.
  2. What consumers want brands to do: An examination of how brands are being called to take swift and meaningful action.
  3. Inside out – Doing work internally first: A roadmap for how leaders can start from the top-down, giving Black voices representation, investing in Black talent, and evolving corporate culture to eliminate bias.
  4. Internal work inspires external work: Examples of how building an organization that embraces Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) empowers action and communication that has positive community impact.

The key takeaways from the Guide urge brands, agencies, and media to recognize:

  • The US is moving toward a majority-minority culture.
  • Black Lives Matter is bigger than messaging, affecting how brands operate internally and externally.
  • Addressing racial injustice is a business imperative.
  • Brands need to accept discomfort and be prepared for polarization in addressing racial inequities.
  • Ads that reflect diversity work.
  • A brand purpose, alone, is not enough.
  • Media budgeting is overwhelmingly skewed toward the general population.
  • Consumers prefer concrete action over donations.

We also suggest brands take these steps to move toward inclusiveness:

  1. Reframe business growth through a majority-minority lens.
  2. Identify internal bias and work to erase it.
  3. Build a holistic DEI ecosystem.
  4. Determine whether you have permission to engage with diverse audiences.
  5. Find imaginative ways to help support and nurture Black businesses and communities.
  6. Publicize your progress.

However you say it – Black lives matter, Black Lives Matter, BLM, or #blacklivesmatter – a single case study cannot encapsulate the magnitude of the momentum of consumers and employees united in action for justice. Therefore, to cover a complicated, fast-changing subject, we have drawn from leading voices to bring clarity to what brands need to do. The Guide’s contributors include:

Also included in the Guide is custom research from Wunderman Thompson (sample provided by Prodege – special thanks to Mark Truss, Diana Oricco, and E’lana Jordan), and the real-time market research platform Suzy (thanks to Maddie Brown). Stay tuned for some upcoming neuroscience research that will be published on WARC from Maria Pocovi and her team at Emotion Research Lab on how consumers have reacted to some of the most well-known commercials from brands addressing Black Lives Matter. (Thanks to QuestionPro for providing the sample for that research.) Using mixed research methodologies from quantitative studies, qualitative insights from experts, and facial recognition to close the empathy gap in the absence of focus groups during a socially-distanced reality, those studies were fielded in September 2020 and were conducted among almost 2,500 US respondents.

To be blunt, that research provides resounding evidence, not only of the reality of racism, but the requirement for brands to play their part, internally and externally, however imperfectly.

That said, which solutions to adopt, how fast to move, and how to track progress, are all open for debate. But one conclusion is clear: consumers and employees expect brands and companies to pivot.

Courage to Pivot

A movement that started slowly in 2013 upon the acquital of George Zimmerman in Black teenage Trayvon Martin’s death, has moved to mass mobilization in 2020.

Prior to 2020, few brands had championed Black Lives Matter aside from Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Gucci (who has been an example of correcting missteps quickly and in concert with the Black community). In the weeks following the brutal death of George Floyd, a new wave of brands made first-time public pledges and commitments for solidarity and action. In fact, from May – July alone, nearly 100 organizations from 100-year old Levi Strauss to 10-year old Peloton reaffirmed the importance of Black lives, culture, and the need to address BLM organizationally.

It’s high time. Since the Mad Men era of the 1960s, as America has etched closer to being majority-minority, the progress of Black representation in shaping media and advertising has remained low. Now, agencies and the largest marketers seem united in stating that Black Lives Matter, even if DEI efforts have yet to result in meaningful progress. It is time for brands, agencies, and media companies to reflect the reality that the world has changed – it is diverse, and moves faster – and people expect brands to not remain silent in a hyper-media saturated reality.

The stakes are high; and this Guide is intended to illuminate lessons from successes and missteps, and provide resources.

The Guide draws on what I love: building “better brands.” It’s that drive to evolve brands into a realm of relevance and resonance that has fueled me to be a scholar-practitioner, teaching at Columbia University while also advising across industries. After studying 1,500 fast-growing brands for years, I discovered the one common thread to their growth is simply how they make others feel; and that is at the heart of how brands should act during the Black Lives Matter era. In my 2019 book, Follow the Feeling: Brand Building in a Noisy World, readers are challenged to ask themselves how their company makes consumers and employees feel. At this moment in time, how does your stance on Black Lives Matter make your most valuable audiences feel? And what are you doing about that feeling?

I know some leaders fear a misstep. Here’s my advice: When solving issues for communities, there is a burden of being culturally ethical. If the dismount between strategy and well-intentioned actions isn’t precise, unintended consequences occur. To help mitigate negative consequences, there’s a three-part “culture-ethics” test you can deploy to uncover a brand’s responsibility in marketing responsibly to communities and about issues that impact them:

  • Empowerment: Does this make the community “better off”?
  • Earnestness: Are we solving the issue they care about the most with sufficient resources for impact?
  • Empathy: Are we allowing their voices to steer decisions & outcomes?

I invite you into this discourse about the role of companies and brands in delivering social justice to consumers, employees, and ultimately, communities. I invite you to action. And I invite you to approach supporting Black Lives Matter as a business growth imperative that will define your company’s legacy.

Thanks to WARC, and thanks to all who contributed to this Guide.