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Putting Action Behind Social Justice Hashtags

Putting Action Behind Social Justice Hashtags

Sarah Steimer

illustration of black fists raised with speaking mouths

Brands haven’t hesitated to show support for those protesting police brutality against Black Americans—but consumers are calling out companies that post a few words to social media without correcting inequalities within their own organizations

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, Instagram and other social media platforms have been filled with messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and promises to “do better” from brands.

But those words rang hollow if they weren’t backed by action, as many consumers and brand insiders were quick to point to the lack of diversity in companies’ leadership teams, advertising and elsewhere. Campaigns such as Pull Up for Change were established in response, built around holding brands accountable, and Ad Age is regularly updating a blog post that tracks brands’ responses to racial injustice.

What the en masse response to protests has demonstrated is that the conversation around whether a brand should step up and take a stand is over. The new focus is around action. Brands cannot announce their stance without taking meaningful steps to practice what they preach. 

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Deposits of Goodwill

Ben & Jerry’s has a reputation for putting action behind its advocacy. In response to protests against systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, the brand released a statement calling on the U.S. to dismantle white supremacy and offered four specific steps to do so. The company’s Global Head of Activism Christopher Miller told The Drum that this is “not a marketing exercise.” 

“A friend of mine messaged me—he’s a big fitness guy— and he’s like, ‘Man, I don’t eat ice cream, but I’m buying Ben & Jerry’s now,’” says Americus Reed, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The reason Ben & Jerry’s call for action is believable, Reed says, is that activism is baked into the culture of the company. “What is your social justice footprint, so to speak? When I look back three, five, seven, 10 years, have you been making these, what I would call, deposits of goodwill? Have you been doing this kind of work outside of the spotlight?”

Anecdotal evidence, consumer surveys and academic research all suggest that taking a stand—in alignment with your company’s mission—is a worthy endeavor. Ben & Jerry’s frequently engages in activist work and continues to thrive as a brand (even among Reed’s non-ice-cream-consuming friends). As Reed explains, a great product or service paired with a shared value system only deepens a brand’s connection with the consumer. 

“The theory is, the [customers] we lose are going to be replaced with equal if not more of the type of people who will be more loyal,” he says. “They are coming into the tent not necessarily only because of how great your product is, but they’re coming into the tent because they believe your product, your company, your service, your organization, shares their same values.” 

Not every company has a history similar to Ben & Jerry’s, and they may be starting from scratch. To that end, Reed emphasizes the need to be unambiguous in your message and your plan for action. Saying your brand will do better without any concrete steps won’t stand up to scrutiny. He recommends bringing in outside voices to help craft a specific plan of action and to start sewing these values into the fabric of the brand. 

“You have to invest the psychic energy, the leadership impetus, and you have to build it into the DNA of what you’re doing,” Reed says. “You have to bring in a diversity officer, you have to bring in the community, you have to bring in those voices that have not been heard. And you have to make them part of the conversation, but also part of the strategic, forward-looking approach that you’re going to use.” 

Baking Action Into the Brand’s Culture

In the conversation about how brands can confront racism, much has been focused on diversifying a company’s staff. A clear line can be drawn from a diverse (and equally compensated) team to more inclusive products, services and advertising. 

“It almost makes no sense to not take a good hard look and say, ‘If we want to appeal to the general market, so to speak, we must come to terms with the fact that the general market oftentimes does not look like the people in the room,’” says Bennett D. Bennett, principal at Aerialist. “Does that mean you fire every person until you get to a point where it’s fully representative of that? No. But how do you start including the voices that usually are marginalized?” 

Bennett also serves as vice president of partnerships at 600 & Rising, a new nonprofit dedicated to the advocacy and advancement of Black employees in the advertising industry. The name comes from the more than 600 Black agency professionals who released an open letter to industry leaders calling for an end to racism. The letter included a list of 12 actions to address the problem, including making specific, measurable and public commitments to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing—a metric not currently tracked in the industry to indicate if any progress is being made. 

Bennett says that inclusion of diverse voices extends beyond company rank and should also include hiring and investing in diverse creative partnerships and showcasing diverse voices in awards submissions. As consumers sat up and took note of who was posting to Instagram and who was doing the work, they’re likely to keep track of which brands keep it up. 

“How do we stake our claim at this table and say, yes, we care about our brand’s bottom line and about creating work that appeals to consumers, but how do we now become proactive?” Bennett says. “Because the stuff that we’re doing in regard to the letter is reactive, but it also gives [companies] space to say, ‘Let’s do this and have a ‘yes, and?’ mentality to it.’” 

Continuing the work, even if there are some missteps along the way, is crucial to baking diversity into a brand’s DNA. Bennett references a quote he read recently: “I will give you grace if you give me effort.” If companies are willing to put in the work—even if not perfect—it won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. The more a brand diversifies its staff and partnerships, the more natural it becomes for anyone involved to question and reject insensitive output—and the easier it becomes to lead with values. 

“There’s all kinds of missteps that you can make, there’s a whole slew of challenges,” Reed says. “What you have to do is be true to your truth, live your truth, you have to be true to what it is your company believes in. Whatever the consequences are, you live with it. … But I think a lot of companies don’t understand values-driven marketing because they’ve never really done it.”

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.