Corporate communications about social justice issues is a high wire act. These conversations typically stoke intense passions, so sending the wrong message could make your brand the object of public scrutiny. For these reasons, brands have historically been hesitant to wade into conversations about social justice issues.
But in recent years, that’s been changing. Recent examples include Airbnb’s pro-diversity Super Bowl ad and Google’s sustainability initiatives.
This paradigm shift is being led by the rise of the activist consumer—individuals (typically younger) who pledge to only support brands whose values align with their own. For brands, promoting company values publicly can help serve as a contrast to competitors while fostering a stronger connection with consumers. There’s also increased pressure for brands to speak out, as silence can be seen as complicity.
But it’s not just about business. Many brands speak out because they see it as the morally right thing to do—and that’s exactly what we’re seeing now.
The fallout from the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer, and the ensuing nationwide protests have taken brand activism to a whole new level. Hundreds of brands are creating content around their response to the killing and the protests.
But speaking out simply isn’t enough anymore. Consumers are savvy enough to realize which brands pay lip service to social justice issues, and which take substantial action. Saying something without doing anything is nothing less than capitalizing on tragedy.
Marketers need to be cognizant of this when creating content around the nationwide protests. To help show you how, we’ve evaluated the content produced and actions taken by five different brands that we feel provide a good roadmap for how to perform brand activism. We hope their approaches can inform your brand’s response.
Nike has historically been a tonesetter when it comes to brand advocacy. In 2018, they memorably created an ad featuring civil rights activist and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick.
So it’s not surprising that within days of the killing of George Floyd, Nike posted a short video on their social media channels denouncing systemic racism and calling for action. The video was released with the hashtag #UntilWeAllWin, which trended on social media for several days. It even wound up being retweeted by Adidas, Nike’s main competitor, as well as a variety of other sportswear brands.
The somber tone of the video, as well as the call to action, strike an appropriate tone for the current moment. The video also aligns with the image Nike has cultivated for itself in recent years as a pro-social justice brand—and their actions speak far louder than their words.
Through Nike’s philanthropic arm, Nike Community Impact, the sportswear brand provides grants to support grassroots initiatives in small communities, issues donations to schools and community organizations, and hosts programs that promote youth athletics.
By being first among their competitors to comment on this issue, Nike continues to serve as a model in the business community for how brand activism should be done. As a result, they’re perceived as a genuine brand that puts people before profits.
Citigroup’s response to the killing of George Floyd has been simple and effective. Last week Mark Mason, a black man who serves as Citi’s Chief Financial Officer, wrote a blog post on the Citigroup website titled “I can’t breath.” The post starts by repeating the phrase “I can’t breathe” ten times. Mason then goes on to share his feelings on the subject.
The post has since received hundreds of comments from Citi employees—many of whom thanked Mason for speaking out about the issue. Others took the post as an opportunity to share their own feelings on the matter.
In a separate memo, Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat acknowledged that many Citi employees have experienced racism in their everyday lives:
“While I can try to empathize with what it must be like to be a black person in America, I haven’t walked in those shoes,” Corbat said, according to Bloomberg.
While promoting conversation internally is important, Citi also has a track record of social responsibility. One such example is their Community Progress Makers Fund, which supports local solutions and organizations that are helping build stronger, more resilient cities that catalyze economic opportunity for all their residents.
Overall, Mason’s post gave the entire company a forum to voice their feelings on a very important subject. Citigroup’s example goes to show that brand activism can matter just as much internally as it can externally.
Just like Citi, Microsoft sought to amplify employee voices—but in a different way. Starting Sunday, Microsoft began tweeting out quotes from black employees who shared their feelings about the killing of George Floyd.
This approach serves to make employees feel like they are being heard internally, while also projecting externally how serious Microsoft is about this issue. In addition to the tweets, Merisa Heu-Weller, director of Microsoft’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, shared a blog post on the Microsoft website in which she details everything Microsoft is doing to create a more equitable criminal justice system.
This includes partnering with activist organizations to increase access to data on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and supporting initiatives that train law enforcement to implement more community-based policing techniques.
Taken as a whole, Microsoft comes across as an organization concerned with promoting black voices and making foundational changes to end police discrimination.
Our next example is Verizon, whose CEO hosted a webcast on Tuesday in which he shared his feelings on the killing of George Floyd and explained what Verizon would be doing in response.
“The events unfolding across the country that are rooted in hate are contradictory with our beliefs as a company and leave me with a feeling of regret and sadness,” said Verizon’s CEO, Hans Vestberg.
Vestberg said Verizon would be donating $10 million dollars to social justice organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the National Urban League, and the National Coalition on Black Civil Participation.
On social media, many followers praised Vestberg for the vulnerability he showed in speaking directly to the company and the world through a webcast. This approach shows that honest and clear communication is necessary when discussing difficult topics.
Black Lives Matter
Lastly we want to talk about the nonprofit organization Black Lives Matter (BLM). Given, BLM is not an enterprise business, but they are still setting a powerful example of how content can support action.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing, BLM shared a powerful video denouncing the killing of Floyd while acknowledging all the previous black victims of police brutality.
BLM sought to generate further awareness through the #SayTheirNames social media hashtag, which encourages social media users to share the names of the victims of police violence on their profiles.
BLM has continued to put out useful content since protesters began mobilizing in cities across the country. They recently launched a petition that calls for the defunding of police, and have also been putting out weekly podcast episodes highlighting grassroots movements in local communities. Previously, BLM shared content on COVID-19 safety and prevention.
BLM’s content has proven to be an important vehicle for amplifying their message and organizing their followers at a pivotal time, and they set an excellent example for marketers seeking to communicate with their audience in a meaningful way.
How Can Your Brand Help?
As these examples have shown, brands can and should speak out about social justice issues. Doing so can help you foster a stronger connection with consumers and differentiate yourself from competitors.
But that’s NOT why you should speak out.
Brands should speak out because it’s the right thing to do, and because something that affects one of us affects all of us.
But speaking out isn’t enough either.
For real change to occur, everyone needs to take action—businesses included. What that looks like will differ from business to business. Some businesses may donate, others may lend support to local grassroots organizations, and others may commit to more diversity in hiring.
The key is to do something.
We hope these examples have been useful in helping you think of ways your brand can contribute toward a more equitable future. We hope you not only speak out, but back up your words with action.