"I've failed." These words have been widely circulated by both prominent people and businesses in recent weeks in response to past failures regarding racism in the U.S. Notably, brands have been speaking out like never before, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25.
This is somewhat unusual historically, as brands have generally chosen not to engage in political conversations when given the choice. But recent trends might suggest a shift in this attitude. In a 2018 report by Edelman, 60 percent of consumers were found to make purchasing decisions on the basis of whether a brand speaks out against racism. According to the report, "Brand democracy has [become] the new normal, with nearly two-thirds of consumers looking for brands to be a force of societal change."
While in the past political statements might be frowned on, this new normal in branding dictates that not saying anything could be worse. At the same time, consumer backlash is now demonstrating that just saying something is not enough. Brands that have spoken out in support of Black Lives Matter, for example, have also faced criticism for how they do so.
This is particularly true when stakeholders view official statements as "performative," that is, as statements viewed as insincere or opportunistic.
For example, in the midst of the widespread protests this spring and early summer, the NFL shifted its messaging from being evasive at best to stating outright support for Black Lives Matter. The post drew instant backlash due to the NFL's lack of support in the past for player Colin Kapernick, who took a knee during the national anthem at NFL games before being released from his contract.
While the recent outpouring of support for racial justice may mark a turning point in public opinion, performative statements are not a new strategy in branding.
Terry Hemeyer, associate professor of instruction in the Stan Richards School, likes to refer to performative statements as "purpose-washing." He said he witnessed this himself when working at an energy company. In a lecture for Dave Junker's Public Relations Strategies class this summer, he said his former employer's competitors sometimes "greenwashed" their companies by promoting environmentalism while doing little to invest in clean energy.
When purpose-washing, brands risk backlash from stakeholders. But they risk more than that according to some experts, as they can be harmful to the cause itself.
"Such statements of commitment might work to limit rather than enable action, insofar as they block recognition of the ongoing nature of what it is the organization is committed to opposing," writes Sarah Ahmed in an essay titled “The Nonperformativity of Antiracism.” In other words, when companies purpose wash, they fail to acknowledge and repair their own failings in areas they say they support.
This was on display recently when a photo of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon taking a knee was released to show support for racial justice. But as a Washington Post article explained, the photo faced abrupt backlash for what seemed to be an omission of its own failures.
"Nobody's asking for a CEO to take a knee. You take the knee after you change your policies," ReadySet founder and chief executive Y-Vonne Hutchinson told The Washington Post in reference to the photo.
While action beyond words is what stakeholders seem to be demanding, they are also carefully judging the effectiveness of the actions themselves.
Changes to TV sitcoms "The Golden Girls" and "Family Guy" are two examples. Following the lead of "30 Rock," "Scrubs," and "Community," which removed episodes featuring black face, Hulu also removed an episode of "The Golden Girls" that features characters in a mud mask.
"We know the difference between a face mask and blackface," wrote @GlamazonJay in a viral tweet that garnered more than 400,000 likes. "Now this is just f------ insulting. Put it back."
While some have praised decisions of TV shows to recast their characters with actors of the same race, these actions have also drawn fire for the perception that they distract from the demands of activists, including ending qualified immunity and redirecting funding from police departments to social services.
On Twitter, the Malcolm X quote, "The White man will give you symbolic victories rather than economic equity and justice," became widely shared as a response to similar gestures.
In fact, this rush by brands to take quick but superficial action has become so pervasive that it has inspired widespread parody on social media.
Comedian Yassir Lester posted a tweet with a fake statement from sandwich shop Jersey Mikes renaming the BLT to BLM --- "Bacon, Lettuce, 'Mato." The next day he admitted to authoring the statement himself, pointing out how a statement so outrageous was also believable to many.
Later, Twitter personality @ZackFox posted another fake statement, this time for Subway. The statement introduced a new "NAACP sandwich" and committed to "fighting racism with a footlong." Whether people saw this parody as fake or real, the 50,000 likes shows people are engaging with such outrageous statements nevertheless.
Consumer accountability marks a turning point for many brands. Marina Monsisvais, public relations specialist and owner of Barracuda PR, attributes these new brand-consumer conversations to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the visible political division in the U.S.
“It becomes more important to stand up for the things that you think are right, and it becomes more important for your consumer or your client to know that they back a product that feels the same way that they do about issues,” Monsisvais says.
She also says younger consumers tend to vote with their wallets, using politics to guide their purchases. Brands then are not only learning to navigate political conversations, but also ongoing conversations with their consumers.
“At the end of the day, they’re a business. A viral tweet is important, but if you hit them where it counts, which is their purse, they’re going to have to respond,” she says.
Younger consumers, for example, used both social media and their wallets to protest Starbucks.The coffee company faced both social media backlash and boycott threats when they implemented a policy that banned baristas from wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and pins. Social media was then flooded with information for Black-owned coffee shops to support instead of the chain. Starbucks then reversed their policy on June 12.
Aba Blankson, senior VP of marketing and communications for the NAACP, often reviews statements made by companies before their release, when companies seek guidance on how to manage message sensitivity. She says that while she can offer guidance, it is the brands’ consumers who ultimately hold them accountable.
“The consumers will let them have it before we ever do,” said Blankson in an interview for Junker’s public-relations class. “Consumers are going to say, ‘This is not what you said you were going to do, and I supported your brand because you said you are about this particular cause, and now it seems that you’re not.”
A recent survey by Morning Consult found consumers prefer commitments of resources to communities and efforts to improve inclusion over companies’ social media messages of support.
So how can brands make authentic impact? It may not be the statements themselves, but instances when it is statements alone. Responses that have earned praise from consumers typically include specific actions.
Lego, for example, pulled advertising for their police toys and contributed $4 million to various charities focused on “supporting Black children and educating all children about racial equality,” the company tweeted.
Ben & Jerry’s has also received praise from both consumers and industry professionals for the substantive actions that accompany their public statements and positions. The company has a strong history of social activism and has rejected the boilerplate brand response by offering specific action points. These include demands that President Trump publicly disavow white supremacists, that Congress passes H.B. 40 to create a commission to study the history of slavery and discrimination and recommend appropriate reparations, that Congress supports Floyd’s family’s call for a bipartisan task force to increase police accountability, and for the Department of Justice to reinvigorate the Civil Rights Division and reinstate policies rolled back by Trump.
Unlike most companies, the Ben & Jerry's Board of Directors is made up of social activists whose mission is "preserving and expanding Ben & Jerry's social mission, brand integrity and product quality, by providing social mission-mindful insight and guidance to ensure we're making the best ice cream possible in the best way possible," according to their site.
Nike is another brand that comes to mind in its public stances regarding Black Lives Matter. Since Floyd's murder, Nike has pledged $40 million to support the Black community and made Juneteenth a paid holiday.
At the same time, Nike has been called out -- via the online campaign #PullUpOrShutUp for lack of diversity in the company's leadership.
"That's where it's actually going to matter," said Blankson. "The things that you post now are nice, they're cute. But there's going to come a point in time where you're actually going to have to show up or shut up."
If anything, it is now clear that a single statement or adjustment will not absolve even the most reputable brands and that internal change must be among the changes a brand is willing to support.
This could mean greater opportunity for a diversity of students poised to enter the workforce.
Alexandra Trujillo, member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council for the Stan Richards School, says she has seen more inclusive hiring in the industry. She also hopes that diversity in hiring is not just symbolic and that companies value the voices of their diverse hires.
"Agencies have been hiring diverse talent," she said. "But I want to make sure that not only are they hiring diverse talent, but they truly trust our talent."
As companies adjust to their new role in politics, time will only tell if brands and the agencies that represent them can evolve quickly and effectively to not only maintain consumers' trust, but take an active role in social justice.