Brands Do Need to Take a Stand. Here's How to Do So Responsibly.

Right now isn't the time to be silent. Here's how to get your message across.
Brands Do Need to Take a Stand. Here's How to Do So Responsibly.
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Author and Brand Expert
8 min read
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Nike, Walmart, Ben & Jerry’s, Twitter and Google: These are just a few of the major brands that have responded to the news of George Floyd’s murder by taking a stand against racism. Their actions vary, from Nike’s “Don’t Do It” ad, to Ben & Jerry’s new “Justice Remixed” flavor, to Walmart’s $100 million pledge for the creation of a center on racial equity. But each one is a poignant reminder of brands’ unique ability to influence and reshape public opinion. 

It has been my life’s work to infuse values into marketing campaigns that aim to spark positive social change. While working at Unilever, I spearheaded Global Handwashing Day with Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand. In its first year, 2008, over 20 million children participated. It ultimately shifted the hygiene habits of millions of people around the world. The Lifebuoy team has just announced that it has now reached 1 billion people. I’ve taken a similar approach to help Pepsodent toothpaste improve oral hygiene in Africa and Knorr bouillon cubes fight anemia through encouraging mothers and girls to eat more green leafy vegetables alongside its iron-fortified cubes. I discuss all of this in my new book, Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.

Related: Here's How Business Leaders Are Responding to the George Floyd Protests

These successes make sense given that, with their natural incentives to get people to buy their products, brands have an inherent ability to reshape people’s views and habits. They have decades of experience convincing consumers to do just that, and the tools, resources and creative heft to change social norms and influence conversations.  They can spread messages far and wide, among both consumers and their employees.

With such power and influence, it is simply no longer acceptable for brands to remain silent, especially in these times when consumers are craving positive examples to fill the void left by governments. 

However, there are parameters brands must respect in order to strike the right tone and behave in a responsible, constructive manner when taking a stand.

Uphold values mindfully so as not to cause unintended harm 

Although there will always be factions of the public that become inflamed at one message or another, it is incumbent upon brands to be intentional in choosing messages. Brands might choose messages that are seen as controversial, like when Nike supported Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and some customers protested by burning their Nike products. It is crucial to take a stance with integrity and good intentions. As Nike said at the time, we must all “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Nike’s “Don’t Do It” slogan is a brilliant example of messaging mindfully and with integrity because it is so closely aligned with its longstanding, familiar and non-controversial slogan, “Just Do It.” 

Ben & Jerry’s can speak with confidence and authority on America’s current times because since the civil rights movement, its founders have supported work towards racial equality on several fronts — education, housing inequality, income inequality and the criminal justice system. Sending social messages through new flavors and their names is a thoughtful, natural extension of what Ben & Jerry’s is as a brand.

Related: How Should You Be Talking With Employees About Racism?

Market conscientiously and authentically

Responsible brands do not take advantage of social issues as opportunities to advance marketing and growth. A social purpose is just that: a social purpose that will pay in the long term. There might be business benefits to taking a stand, but it is irresponsible when these become the primary motivation for social action. Moreover, actions taken with profits in mind will ring hollow and inauthentic, drive customers away and tarnish a brand’s reputation. 

We've all witnessed major brands fail in this way. Pepsi's 2017 "Live for Now" campaign featuring Kendall Jenner as a model-turned-protestor who joined the Black Lives Matter movement (in the end, handing a police officer a Pepsi as a deescalation tactic) drew massive backlash, as would-be consumers accused the brand of capitalizing on the pain of #BLM for profits, among other things. Pepsi pulled the ad immediately, but just days ago, an image of an actual protestor in the current riots went viral. He was attempting to hand a police officer a Pepsi. People don't forget.

Related: To Understand the Riots, Consider the "Valuation" of Black Lives

Address stereotypes with respectful words and images

In taking a stand, brands also have the power to shatter stereotypes.  Doing so in a responsible, constructive way means choosing words and images that reflect the reality of the different communities portrayed — whether it is around gender, race, body size, LGBTQI+, differently abled bodies and disabilities both visible and invisible — while remaining respectful. Showing images of people from racial and ethnic minority communities in positions of power and leadership is one example. 

Align your messaging (“brand say”) with  your company’s actions (“brand do”)

I am a big believer in the difference between “brand say” and “brand do,” terms coined in 2016 by Steve Miles and widely used within Unilever and its agencies. Brand say involves communicating to consumers about the social purpose; brand do is about translating this purpose into actually addressing social problems. Put simply, you need to walk the talk and take action. 

Ben & Jerry’s has a stellar “brand do” ethic. Its messaging about equality is reflected on its board. For many years, the company has supported work among indigenous Americans too – financially and with legal aid protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. It has worked with the LGBT community: In 1989, long before it was legally required, it extended health insurance benefits to partners of its LGBT employees. Shea Moisture is another example of a brand that makes good on its promises by supporting small black businesses.

Related: Alexis Ohanian's Resignation from Reddit is the Type of Leadership the World Needs

Steps brands can take in general to bridge the “say” with the “do” include actively recruiting and retaining diverse talent, including at the board level; creating safe spaces in the workplace where employees can express themselves; and building coalitions with nonprofit and grassroots organizations to help advance shared missions. Coalitions with the nonprofit and public sector organizations have been key to the success of initiatives such as Global Handwashing Day, Knorr’s drive to improve nutrition and Durex’s campaign to normalize condom use.  

Adopting moral values means that you will follow them throughout your operations, including through your supply chain as well. You can’t hide one part of your activities by jumping on the wagon of race: This defeats the purpose. For example, I would encourage Walmart to not only stand up for racial inequality but also to take a hard look at how guns — which its stores sell — play a role in the deaths of many black people. 

Educate

Creating change begins with educating people about the issues. Campaigns and messaging must aim to both present scenarios of positive change and educate the public about the reasons it's needed. CBS Sports not only stopped broadcasting for eight minutes and 46 seconds to protest the George Floyd’s murder but also partnered with Color of Change to ask viewers to demand an end to “broken windows” policing, add legitimate civilian oversight boards with full investigatory power and reduce police budgets, among other things.

Developing a social mission has also become a business imperative.  Whereas quality was once the primary differentiator between brands, today, embracing a social purpose has become a key way for brands to set themselves apart in the crowded marketplace.  Brands that stand up for the right thing to do are all the more likely to come out of the current crisis in a position of strength, while those without a mission risk getting left behind. 

Related: Black-Owned Restaurants and Businesses You Can Support Right Now

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